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What Romanians think of their country's response to Ukrainian refugees


And finally today, as we've reported throughout Romania, one thing we've heard many times is that despite a language barrier, there's much more that unites Romanians and Ukrainians than divides them. And that's led some people to wonder whether the warm welcome refugees have received throughout Europe is a result of the fact that these are mainly white people who share a common culture. Or is it that this crisis has caused people to embrace the idea of a liberal democracy at a time of rising authoritarianism? We put that question to Radu Umbres, who we heard from earlier. He's an anthropology lecturer at the National School for Political Studies and Public Administration here in Bucharest.

There has been a lot of commentary, especially in the early stages of the crisis, about third country nationals, particularly Black and brown people coming across who had some really terrible experiences crossing the border. Let's just be honest about it. There are a number of sort of students from African countries who were studying in Ukraine who felt very comfortable there until they didn't. And then when they tried to cross the border, some of them were treated, you know, rather horribly. And I just wondered. I think the question then arises, if these - well, there are two questions that arise. One is, is in part the welcome because these are white people? Is in part the welcome because people - there's a sense of fear, which is, if this can happen to them, it could happen to me? And I'm just wondering if you could entertain those two thoughts.

RADU UMBRES: Yeah. These two dimensions are definitely relevant. And to be honest about the matter, it's clear that the empathy that Romanians felt for Ukrainian refugees comes from a certain amount of shared cultural heritage. Ukrainians are very similar to Romanians in many ways. Of course, we have also some shared post-communist history, makes them in a way very familiar. So - and as we know from many studies, people tend to feel more empathy and to be more pro-social towards people who are more like them. Of course, this has been a running commentary that this is not the first humanitarian crisis in the past decades. We had refugees from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Syria, and the general experience was that they were not welcomed.

MARTIN: Those who came in earlier waves of refugees. Obviously, look, part of it is it is a fact that this happened very, very quickly, that it took years for the level of country outflow from those countries to get to the level that it has been in just a couple of weeks out of Ukraine. So some of it is it's just - it's - the crisis aspect of it is so obvious. And also, there are cameras there in a way that there were not necessarily in some of these other places, the fact that people are reporting on this in real time, people can see with their own eyes. So there is all of that. But there is another theory. And the other theory is that this crisis has allowed people to discover something in themselves that they did not know was there. And I wonder if you think that there's - that that's partly true, too.

UMBRES: One thing that - one of the hypotheses that I'm entertaining is that the way that Romanians perceived this crisis in a way brought back some echoes in Romanian history itself. So we do have a history of, to say the least, tense relationships with Russia in its various instances, whether it's the Tsarist empire or Soviet Russia. And many Romanians have ancestors, parents, grandparents who were, for example, refugees from Bukovina or from what is now the Republic of Moldova, that fled the incoming Soviet powers. So many people have personal histories in which their ancestors have been, in one way or another, hurt by the Russian power, by this kind of authoritarian state. So this, again, help empathizing with them.

MARTIN: So as you've discussed, this is not the wealthiest country in the EU. I mean, Moldova is even less affluent, and it has, by their estimate, they have about a hundred thousand people who are staying. And part of the reason they're staying is because of - close to Ukraine and people who have family members still there that they're worried about. People are still worried, hoping that they can get back in, all different scenarios. There's almost that number here in Romania. It's about 80,000 so far. A lot of people are coming in and out, but a lot of people have already passed through and moved on. We were wondering when the effect of this or if the effect of this number of people - I mean, Romania is a bigger country than Moldova, but it's certainly not as big as Poland. It's still not that big of a country. Is there a way in which you feel like this will be felt and where will it be felt or how will it be felt?

UMBRES: Obviously, it was too soon for people to start asking themselves about what will happen in the long term. This was obviously more of a knee-jerk reaction. And nobody actually knows how long the war is going to be, if these refugees will be able to return home, whether they will want to come home, whether they want to stay here or if they want to move further towards the west. And I think that for a lot of people, this is not important right now. The first reaction was to help as much and in that way which was possible.

But I think that for certain people, they started realizing that these Ukrainian refugees might be here for a long time. I've seen a lot of people offering jobs to them. A lot of Ukrainians have been quite entrepreneurial, and they've tried to integrate themselves, to offer themselves for work and for various services. And to take a broader perspective, Romania has been for many years now a country of immigration. Millions of Romanians have moved towards the west. And actually, in many areas of the economy, there is a lack of workforce. And we have already - there are already immigrants coming to work from Asian countries, for example.

And it's quite possible that many Ukrainians might end up staying in Romania for a long time, given the fact that the Romanian economy is doing rather well in the past few years. They will - the Ukrainians could integrate more easily than people from let's say non-European countries, given these similarities in terms of culture and religion, the fact that they could learn the language more easily in a way. And I think that if I look towards the future, I think there's a good chance that we'll have a Ukrainian diaspora living in Romania for some time to come.

MARTIN: And before we go - and again, this may be again, projecting, and it may be kind of bigger than the current - than we have kind of any evidence to suggest. There is a deep concern in some quarters about kind of a worldwide fascist movement. Let's just say. There has been a move around the world in certain quarters toward authoritarianism. And, I mean, you know, elections in Hungary just this past weekend, no one would argue - well, other than the people who created that circumstance, that those were free and fair. There's been suppression of the judiciary, suppression of the free media and so forth.

There's been a concern in some quarters that autocrats around the world have been rising in power and influence. And I wonder if you've thought about this, whether this is a moment in a way where the rest of the world that embraces different ideas steps forward and starts to see the value of defending, you know, the free flow of information, the movement of people and honesty and transparency and a movement against violence and, you know, violence and, you know, strongarm-ism as a way to exert influence in the world. What do you think?

UMBRES: I think we can think of a famous theory that Samuel Huntington had about the clash of civilization. And we can see that he was right, that there is a clash of civilizations, but it's not the way he envisaged it. So he thought that there is some sort of a border between, let's say, Western Europe and Eastern Europe, and that's where the clash will be. Now what we see is that the clash is different. It's a clash between liberalism and authoritarianism. And we see it that certain seeds of authoritarian thinking are happening inside Europe, even in countries like France, for example. And unfortunately very close to us in Hungary, we do see that there is an appeal towards strong leaders, towards an aggressive posturing of politicians.

But in a way, I think if there is one silver lining to this awful conflict in Ukraine is that we see at work two models of society, and people can actually see what kind of society would they embrace. Would they embrace a society which glorifies violence, chauvinism, which glorifies this kind of fascist union between state, church and nationalism? Or would they rather embrace a free society based on free speech, based on the rights of the individual, based on this kind of humanitarian values? And I think that in the long term, the truth and the humanity will prevail. But sometimes in the short term, there is a certain appeal towards authoritarianism because it might offer people quick and dirty solutions to the kind of problems they're facing. They are now between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.

MARTIN: Professor Radu Umbres, thank you so much for talking with us.

UMBRES: Thank you very much for inviting me.

MARTIN: That was Radu Umbres. He's the author of the forthcoming book "Living With Distrust: Morality And Cooperation In A Romanian Village." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.