June 26, 2012, 5:08 pm

Romanian Cultural Institute’s New Mandate Draws Protests in Europe and United States


Over the past five years or so, the Romanian Cultural Institute has become an important force in global cultural exchanges, promoting writers, artists and especially the critically acclaimed cinema movement known as the Romanian New Wave. But the coalition government that recently came to power in Romania has ordered an end to that international focus as it tightens its political control over the institute, actions that have set off protests among arts groups throughout Europe and the United States.

Under an "emergency decree" handed down on June 14, the institute, a non-partisan entity that formerly reported directly to the president, now responds to a Senate riven by partisanship. Its new mandate: to direct its activities at the Romanian diaspora community. As a result, collaborations with American arts institutions – including Lincoln Center, co-sponsor of an annual Romanian film festival, and publishing houses specializing in translated literature — could be in jeopardy. And in recent days, organizations including the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum and Melville House have sent letters to the new prime minister and other government authorities, urging them rescind the measure.

"The decree itself was a complete surprise, and we were not consulted," Horia Roman Patapievici, a physicist and writer who is the president of the institute, said in a telephone interview from Bucharest, the capital of Romania, an East European country with fewer than 20 million people. "But even more surprising was the shift in focus. Our strategy since I took over the presidency in 2005, has been that we should open to the outside world. Our aim is to relink the Romanian cultural market, cut off from the West, with the western cultural market, and in New York, you saw the result. We have been very present even though our material means are limited."

In an e-mail, the film director Cristian Mungiu, whose "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, described the government action as a "brutal intrusion of politics in the cultural life" of Romania that shows a "complete lack of respect towards the artists and intellectuals that were amongst the rare providers of good news about Romania in the last years." Mr. Mungiu, who is one of more than 3,000 intellectuals and creative artists to sign a petition protesting the new policy, added that the tendency of the new "political majority to remove all the representatives of the former regime from all public positions, irrespective of their professional capacities and results and to replace them with their own supporters, is unethical and encourages a certain kind of moral corruption that we need to fight against."

Asked why the government had ordered the change, Mr. Patapievici suggested that electoral politics play a role. Like the United States, Romania has an election scheduled for November, and since the Romanian diaspora is allowed to cast ballots, focusing on their cultural desires at the expense of the international public and younger, globalized Romanian expatriates "is transparently an electoral measure, to cajole their votes," he said.

But Mr. Patapievici also said that nationalist groups in the Romanian senate object to his "cosmopolitan" tastes and approach. He said that when he testified to the Senate's cultural commission last week, he was met with hostile questions along the lines of "Why don't you speak to national values? Why do you have anti-Romanian attitudes?"

The new situation in Romania resembles that of Hungary, where a right-wing nationalist government has also tightened controls over culture and freedom of expression. Romania differs, however, in at least one important respect: the new government there is a coalition between parties of the left and center-right, headed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party, which is associated with Ion Iliescu, an 82 year old former Communist apparatchik.

On Friday, the government ombudsman challenged the legality of Mr. Ponta's decree, arguing against it before the country's Constitutional Court. A ruling could come as early as July 5, and if it is adverse, Mr. Patapievici said he would "reject the political subordination" of the institute, which presumably means he would resign.

Mr. Ponta last week denied that he was shifting control of the cultural institute away from president Traian Basescu, his longtime political rival, so as to force Mr. Patapievici, an ally of the president, to resign. He said his actual objective was to depoliticize the institute's top staff and operations and allow more parliamentary supervision of its expenditures at a time when Romania is undergoing fiscal austerity.

"Putting the R.C.I. under parliamentary control is the democratic choice and aims to make the institution more transparent," the government spokesman, Andrei Zaharescu, sai
d. "Use of public funds must be above any suspicion and only through transparent and democratic parliamentary control this can be achieved."

With the political situation still in flux, American arts organizations that have worked closely with the institute have rallied to its side.

"The art world in New York continues to be amazed how this group representing a country whose population is a fraction of Germany, Britain and France and whose resources are circumscribed can be as effective and efficient as the cultural services of these other nations," wrote Lawrence Kardish, a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In her letter, Alissa Simon, senior programmer at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, praised the institute for providing "a precious neutral space for international cultural exchange."

Corina Suteu, director of the New York office of the institute, which also has offices in cultural centers like Berlin and Paris, said the repercussions would be significant if the changes go through. "First of all, there will a return to archaic attitudes, with complete political control," she said. "The Senate can say 'I don't like this kind of art, you should present this instead.' But we have to present all kinds of Romanian culture. This is how we become visible abroad."