From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment twenty-seven

Travel notes – Romania,  Wednesday, 15 August – Friday, 17 August 1990

Strange to think that only last December we sat before our television in our Waikiki apartment and followed the amazing news of the revolution in Bucharest to the point of the execution of the hated Ceaucescu.

This was the country which was at the bottom of my priority list, next to Albania. A revolution left unfinished, with installation in power of ex-Communist, newly baptized “Socialists.” Iliescu, the transition figure who refuses to back away from power. A starved country which offended the US and EEC by the pogroms of university and opposition leaders just several months ago.

The country where the US government recently issued an advisory against travel due to sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Now, following repeated, insistent invitations from Romtrans and their acceptance by telex of the tough terms I set as a precondition, I take Nigel for a day visit.  We are both nervous flying in – will this be pure business and will it be successful?

Arrival is dismal. The airport windows haven’t been washed in months; one is broken. The bus transfer is ramshackle. It’s hot, over 36 degrees C and our hosts are not there to meet us. We bargain and get a taxi into town, to our hotel Intercontinental. The hotel itself is slightly run down but functioning. Looks like Athens, very Balkans. But, thank heavens, the air conditioning works and the pool on the 22nd floor is cool when I take a dip Thursday evening. We dine in the hotel – unexciting but safe and then dare to take a stroll outside. There are some student demonstrations across the street at the university walk (renamed, in giant graffiti: TienAnMin Square). The mood is like Barcelona, Las Ramblas. Many are out strolling. Sabena and other airline offices are just nearby, as is the American Embassy.

Thursday norming at 9 our hosts get through by phone and at 10 we are picked up by Ionescu, a skinny energetic guy with wavy hair, Arab/Semitic features. His English is fluent, ditto French. He spent several years in Iraq in the early 80s. The way to their office is via a block of new apartment houses just being finished and leading to Ceaucescu’s notorious palace. However, up close the architecture is really excellent. Neo-classical, using stone colors and motifs that are indigenous. Very successful. As pleasing as the best parts of Madrid. The fountains and carvings on facades show some oriental influence – at first it even seems like Mexican. However, later as we walk through the town the peculiar serpentines are found on 16th-17th century church porticos, reflecting Turkish influence. So the motifs and beige colored stone are authentic and indigenous.

The main boulevards are broad. The buildings of this Ceaucescu complex are grand but not really pompous. Building materials are blond travertine and concrete, so they are good but not lavish. Even the palace itself, a sort of truncated Stalin type Palace of Culture, is in proportion with the boulevard and not so very oversized. This all compares favorably to the jumble of broken down and ugly buildings which constitutes the Bucharest side streets. Yes, there are fine old boulevards and districts with very good villas. But the basic downtown side streets are very homely and poor, and their disappearance in C’s urban renewal is not really regrettable.

Our meeting takes place in the ‘protocol’ room of the Romtrans headquarters, which is a shabby 1930s building with cracked plaster and worn out cheap furniture. The heat builds up and becomes nearly unbearable. We are offered periodically cups of coffee and soda as the meeting goes on for four and a half hours without break for lunch. We are introduced to Gabi Constantinescu, courier employee; Mihailescu, deputy general manager of Romtrans; and Eugen Bar, the general manager. Mihailescu, a chubby guy in his 40s with round Greek face and features, comes from the river boat side of transportation. He does most of the negotiating. Ionescu does the translating. Bar comes in for protocol reasons, to put his stamp of approval on the talks. Mihailescu walks in and out and shows he is in overall control. Ionescu goes over all the tough questions with us. These guys show energy, knowledge of the business and confidence.

The main impression is that our timing has been very lucky. Had we come six months ago, Romtrans would have been imperious and dictated unacceptable terms. Then they were still the only game in town and they were locked together with DHL to whom they gave all Romanian exports (receiving for the favor one-half of the revenues from export).  However, in May DHL cancelled the contract from one day to the next, after having cut a deal with the courier manager from Romtrans on a visit to DHL headquarters. That ostensibly had as its goal the creation of a DHL – Romtrans joint venture.

As a result the 6 key courier employees left Romtrans to set up a DHL office and took most of the clientele with them. Romtrans were furious but could do nothing. They made a gentlemen’s agreement with RGW to assume imports and with Jet Service International (Frankfurt) for exports. But they urgently needed a major international partner to recover credibility before their clientele and go after DHL. We provide just that. Evidently neither TNT nor Fedex were yet interested in the market.

Total Romanian market today is perhaps 65 imports and 25 exports daily. We now have an excellent chance to get the lion’s share.

By my estimate, DHL screwed themselves. They applied the same solution in Romania as in Yugoslavia and Poland, but without reckoning the difference in local circumstances. Unlike those countries, all economic life in Romania remains in the hands of monopoly companies and that will not change quickly. DHL cannot gain or retain business by bribing secretaries. The decision on which courier service to use will be made by management and management will play ball with Mihailescu not with ex-DHL kids.

Romtrans agree to our financial terms on delivery costs and revenue sharing for export.

Thursday evening our hosts take us to dinner. Ionescu and a young newly minted deputy general manager named Doskalov. He is literally the fair-haired boy. Born in Moscow of Russian mother, now living in Bucharest as an English (!) language professor, he is a polyglot who is happy to switch into Russian with me and talk about his vacation, discovery near Mamaia on the Romanian Black Sea coast.

We dine in a splendid villa that is ten minute walk from our hotel. Splendid in terms of exclusiveness and decoration – mediocre in terms of food preparation. We share jokes; conversation turns to the Gulf stand-off between the US and Iraq. Poor Romanians have had to earn their living in the Middle East. Our interlocutors explain that Romania supplied the whole Iraqi army with boots and uniforms, plus heavy transport vehicles and construction projects. Also many Romanian technicians were working in the oil industry there.

Friday we spend the whole day in the Protocol room at Romtrans putting together exhibits to the master UPS contract.  Finally all is finished and signed by 3 pm when, exhausted by the mounting heat and having taken no lunch at all, we are driven out to the airport. So far so good. Nigel and I are very satisfied with ourselves for having taken the risks and come out here.

 I am exhilarated. It’s experiences like this, creative excitement, which make it worthwhile to put up with all the little wounds to my vanity at UPS, where I am often the white crow, as well as all the uncertainty over how long we can stay in our European heaven…

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

One thought on “From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment twenty-seven

  1. Doctorow, how old were you during the wild 90s? And were you considered young for the business role you played at that time, were you significantly younger than most of your associates at that time?

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