Some of the most influential figures in Romanian politics rarely emerge into the light of day. They are long-serving officials in the different public ministries and other vital branches of state. They have their own agendas. Thus in the agriculture ministry after 2000, the preferred approach was to assist the pre-1989 bosses of the cooperatives as they strove to become large landowners. In the education ministry, an easy tolerance was shown towards the private universities which proliferated from the 1990s as old guard figures in state education looked for new worlds to conquer.
Occasionally, officials would encounter determined ministers with plans of their own. Andrei Marga education minister towards the end of the 1990s was one such figure. Another is George Flutur who wishes to end the neglect of small farming and curb the privileges of the new red boiers and who has brought in his own people to the agriculture ministry to do so.
But a surprisingly large number of ministers fall under the control of top officials. They arrive without an agenda for reform and often there are a hundred explanations from their officials as to why any ideas they have are premature, have been tried already, contravene various laws or just won't work. The British TV series 'Yes Minister', made in the 1970s was a worldwide success because it seemed to confirm a universal iron law of bureaucracy.
But in Romania, there are some special factors at work. Ministers with original ideas are often unable to rely on strong party support. Worse resourceful bureaucrats are sometimes able to lobby within his party, or the coalition, to defeat his plans. A high-profile minister like Monica Macovei has faced, and partly overcome, such obstruction because she can rely on exceptional support from outside the country. Her weak position in parliament and the isolation of being an independent is partly-compensated for by such support, but this is a unique situation which will not be repeated once the power of Brussels to hurry things up in Romania ends in 2007.
Much of the power enjoyed by senior administrators derives from their knowledge of the labyrinth of rules and regulations which needs to be penetrated before lasting changes can be accomplished. An acquaintance familiar with administrative systems across the post-communist world remarked that they mostly begin with general operating principles which become more specific the further down the bureaucratic ladder one goes. But Romania starts with the specific and goes down to the ultra- specific. The plethora of laws, regulations, and controls in each ministry means that there are no general rules which can be invoked to speed up change. Several valuable EU initiatives to encourage talented young people trained in the West to be given difficult assignments that will speed up reform are getting nowhere. This is because guardians of the ministry's rule book succeed in keeping them out by invoking archaic regulations which they are determined to apply at all costs.
Far more than in France, whose system the bureaucracy is modelled on, officials spend an exceptional amount of time, in deriving elaborate regulations that make it hard for concrete changes to occur. It is an exceptional minister who knows his own mind and can rely on powerful allies in party and cabinet to help him override such obstacles to change.
Parliament is not much help. Despite successive bids to improve its professionalism, it is poorly-resourced and staffed. Therefore it is not equipped to assist ministers and indeed parliamentarians in their attempts to get effective laws drafted. If a period of unstable coalition government lies ahead for Romania, then the power of the 'grey eminences' in the ministries will surely expand. Indeed, there are alarming signs that Cotroceni reflects the weakness of parliament. Talented professionals have not been attracted there under the current President. Several prominent ones have quickly got out. If this is part of a trend, then Traian Basescu will find that he too has become the unwitting servant for the eternal bureaucrats who remain in place as politicians come and ago in the frenetic but usually futile party battles that mark Romanian politics.