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Katherine Verdery
Department of Anthropology
Graduate Center, CUNY

Key Words: Politics, Land, Restitution, Property, Socialism, Postsocialism, State, Eastern
Europe, Romania.

Ethnography March 2002



A decade after the law that returned land rights to previous owners in Romania the
process was still incomplete, as titling was delayed and lawsuits dragged on by the year.
Contrary to widespread opinion, I argue that this delay came not primarily from a government
that intended to postpone land restitution but from obstructionism by officials in the
administrative units (communes) charged with implementing restitution. Using data from
ethnographic research, I discuss a variety of ways in which mayors and their commune allies
hindered the restitution process: through their structural relations with the center, their use of
land to accumulate political capital, and their control over the knowledge that counted most in
pursuing a claim, as well as through the abdication of responsibility by both lower- and higher-
level authorities who might have checked mayors' ambitions. The results of their actions
included undermining both the legitimacy of private property institutions and the strength of the
emergent Romanian state.
The land is here, but whose is it? That's the question.
Mayor of Geoagiu commune, 1994

Between April and early June of 1994, I attended meetings of the committee charged

with returning to residents of Vlaicu (a village in Geoagiu commune, Hunedoara county, in the

Transylvanian region of Romania) a the land that had been taken from them in 1959 to create

the village's collective farm.1 Some brief extracts from my fieldnotes will provide a flavor of the

proceedings. In these notes, numbers refer to various village households, 'Ag' is the

committee agricultural engineer, 'Map' the surveyor, and 'Comt' a member of Vlaicu's land


Cousins Andrei and Emil come, one says to Ag, 'They measured yesterday, but

it isn't right.' Ag: 'I can't help you.' 'But it's not right!' Ag: 'You'll have to

remeasure. Then if you move the stakes and can't agree, that's your

problem.' ... They're all shouting now: who pushed into whose land, who

pushed who over. Start comparing lists -- Ion has 10 meters, Iosif has 10 m.,

Elena has 14 m., Petru has 18 m., Pavel has 3 m... Ag: 'We don't have Pavel

anywhere. Ion came into your field.' Andrei: 'Well, I wasn't the one who divided

the land!' Ag: 'Ion made a mistake.' Emil: 'I have .21 ha. from uncle Luca and .

21 from my father, my brother had .07 and gave it to me. If Ion with his .29 ha.

has 10 m., then how can I with .42 ha. have only 12 m?!' Ag: 'Your neighbors

must have come over onto you. Come on Tuesday, we're measuring gardens

then.' Andrei: 'We don't want to quarrel with each other.' Ag: 'There's no point in

fighting, since the land is there!' Emil: 'He said he'd cut my head off!' Andrei:

'How about the land in Vaidei [village]?' Ag, exasperated: 'You have to go to the

commission there and insist. We don't give land to people in Romos commune.'

a a
The village is VLY-koo, its residents vly-CHENi, and the commune jo-AH-joo. The commune is an
administrative unit antedating the communist period; it usually contains 4-12 villages and since 1968 has
been the only unit between villages and counties (the largest administrative division).

Andrei: 'You as the committee are obligated to give us our land!' Ag: 'But not in

other communes!'

A woman comes in, niece of 150, wants Map to go and measure a parcel for her. He

says no. 'You have to resolve it with your uncle or the courts, not with me.' She insists.

After much resistance, Map looks it up, says 'There should be 15 meters for you, 15

meters for him.' He says he'll go and see -- this only after Com't has insisted several

times, 'She's the owner, we should do justice.' He says this to me too, several times,

'Look how hard this job is, but we have to do justice!' He says this to everyone who

comes in: 'If it's yours, we'll give it to you, never fear.' He's drunk, as is obvious when

he sits near me and breathes -- he even comments to me that when he drinks, his mind

is not affected. The woman wants to go with them right now and have them show her

exactly where it is so she can plow a furrow at once -- 'If I just go and plow on my own,

my uncle will bash my head in!'

Map tells me that Iulia from town called him at home one night and said, 'You know that

parcel of mine on the hill: who's working it?' 'How am I supposed to know?!' he asks,

'do you know where it is?' 'No,' she replies. 'Then how can you say someone's working

it!?!' Says people call him at home all the time and disturb him. It's driving him nuts.

Decollectivization, or the process of undoing socialist agriculture, generated millions of

such scenes all across Romania following the 1989 'revolution.' In the excerpts I have

selected we see something of the chaos of the process, the holders of the knowledge it was

based on, and the kinds of people charged with carrying it out -- all points I will revisit below.

But what can ethnographic data of this kind do for us analytically, besides showing local color?

In my opinion, only ethnography can adequately reveal the aftermath of socialism in

Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, challenging the interpretations of analysts whose

attention to actors and events at the center often leads them to miss the mark. They miss it, I

think, partly because their methods remove them from the localized social processes through

which central directives take shape and partly because they are not trained to question their

ideological biases, as ethnographers attempt to do. In short, they are 'seeing like a state'

(Scott 1998) -- usually their own state. Because comparable limitations contributed to the

earlier failure of most western analysts to foresee the collapse of socialism, I believe we are

even more obliged not to repeat those errors. Ethnography is a necessary corrective: we

understand postsocialist transformation better if we see less like a state and more like a mayor.

In this essay, I dispute the opinion, widely held among both foreign observers and many

educated Romanians, that decollectivization in that country proceeded so slowly because the

government -- particularly that of the crypto-communist party led by Ion Iliescu -- wanted to

retain collective agricultural forms and was obstructing their dissolution. From local

ethnography we see that this vastly oversimplifies what was happening in villages. My

argument also has implications for understanding changes in the nature of the state.

Romania's unusually chaotic land reform reveals a marked disjuncture between what was

legislated at the center and what happened in rural settings. In part this disjuncture resulted

from the disestablishment of the Romanian Communist Party, which had organized politics

from top to bottom. But the Party's central control was always weaker than it pretended to be 3;

with the end of its formal monopoly, lower-level authorities became even harder to control than

before. This was the truer given the frenzied scramble for power and resources that was

unleashed at the national level; from it emerged a jumble of contradictory policies and

utterances upon which local authorities could draw selectively.

In the general disarray of Romanian politics in the 1990s I find evidence of a central

power that was eroding, rather than of one scheming to keep agriculture socialist.

Decollectivization contributed to that erosion by empowering lower- rather than higher-level

authorities to implement the law. Focusing on these local actors, I argue that the design and

implementation of Romania's land restitution process concentrated power in the hands of

commune mayors, who had every interest in slowing things down. In arguing this, I find myself

in reluctant agreement both with Romanian government ministers and also with villagers, who

blamed local authorities for the delay in completing restitution. My task is to show why this is a

plausible interpretation, for otherwise it seems merely a rhetorical ploy to avoid taking

responsibility for the mess. (Quite possibly, government spokesmen intended it thus; they

might indeed be surprised by my analysis.)


As is well known, agriculture in most socialist countries had been collectivized by

compelling households with land to relinquish their rights to it. After 1989/91, politicians chose

to dismantle socialist agricultural organizations, rights to the land in them being restored or

distributed to households. The process varied considerably from one case to another,

proceeding much more slowly in Russia than in Eastern Europe. In some East European

countries, former owners received rights to their families' prior holdings; in others, they instead

received vouchers or other values equivalent to the value of their land in the socialist farms.

Of the various solutions, the one that produced the most chaotic results was the former: direct

restitution. This was the route taken in Romania, where a law passed in 1991 ('Law 18')

liquidated collective farms and provided for restoring ownership rights to the households that

had 'donated' land at collectivization (1948-1962).

Since I have described elsewhere the land restitution law and how decollectivization

was organized (Verdery 1994, see also Cartwright 2001), here I will mention only a few points

essential to the argument that follows. One concerns the procedure for allocating rights to the

land formerly controlled by collective farms. 4 The job of implementing the reform went to land

commissions, of which there were three levels: village, commune, and county commissions,

with the commune mayor as head of the first two. Each village elected three persons who,

together with an agronomist and a surveyor from the commune, formed its land commission.

The three villagers were also ex officio members of the commune commission, which consisted

of all that commune's village representatives, the mayor and secretary, the agronomist and

surveyor, and several others (a legal counsel, the head of the local forestry division, an

accountant, additional agronomists). Unifying all a county's commune commissions was the

county commission, which (together with the county judiciary) was the final arbiter of conflicts.

For ease of exposition, I will distinguish among the various levels of commission as follows: I

reserve the word 'commission(ers)' for the commune level; I refer to the county level as the

'county board' and the village level as the village 'committee(men)' (see Figure 1). 'Outside

committeemen' refers to the surveyor and agronomist who came to the village from the

commune center. Of the three levels, the commune commissions were by far the most

consequential, for they directly controlled the implementation process.

<Figure 1 about here>

Once a commission ratified a claim, the new owner received an affidavit (adeverinţă), a

provisional title enabling use of the newly restored rights. Although these were awarded fairly

fast, with 93% of them completed by 1994 according to Ministry of Agriculture statistics, final

titling proceeded more slowly. Figures from June 2001 indicate that around 80% of full titles

had been completed by then, although I doubt this figure. 5 In my research area, there were

still whole villages in which not a single title had been given out by that date. Full titling was

important because it was to be the basis for the agricultural income tax, for using land as

collateral with banks, and for selling or inheriting land, none of which could be legally done

without a title. One could cultivate land without a final title, however -- indeed, Law 18 forced

owners to do so, lest it be confiscated for neglect.

Although I will focus on commune commissions as the site of delays in titling, these

delays had other important causes I should note. First was a dire shortage of properly trained

and equipped surveyors -- a profession not much in demand in the socialist period. Second,

most recipients wanted to reclaim precisely the same plots their families had 'given' to the

collective farm, thus reproducing the fragmentation of holdings before: 45% of all reconstituted

holdings were below one hectare in size (Teşliuc 2000: 100). 6 Third, this fragmentation meant

that for each recipient's approximately 2.2 ha., 7 commissions would have to measure five, six,

seven, or even 25 pieces. Although the full extent of fragmentation is unclear, if we multiply

the 5 million claimants by the modest figure of 3 parcels/holding, 8 it is obvious that to measure

out and title that many parcels with an inadequate corps of surveyors would certainly take time.

And fourth, for a variety of reasons (see Verdery 1994), very few people could offer

unassailable proof to support their claim. When a claim proved difficult to resolve, then, it was

not always because someone was abusing his position of authority: sometimes the resolution

was just too complex. I will return to the question of delay later.

One final clarification concerning who could receive land, and where, is essential to the

narrative below. After World War II many ethnic German citizens of Romania were deported to

the Soviet Union, their lands confiscated and given out to Romanians. Article 16 of Law 18

provided that descendants of these Germans should receive land from the reserve fund, if

there were any -- that is, not necessarily their old lands, which would have been returned to the

Romanian owners.9 To create a reserve fund for this and other purposes (such as to resolve

problem cases or give small amounts to landless villagers), Law 18 placed a ten-hectare limit

on land restitution. The excess would go into the reserve, along with any land that no one

claimed; additionally, if necessary, each owner would be docked a small amount for the

reserve. In villages that had had several estates over ten hectares this provision was easily

met; wherever such estates were absent, however, creating the reserve was much more

difficult. The question of reserve lands would prove a major source of abuse by commune

officials, as I will show.

I organize my discussion as follows, beginning with evidence of the power and

maneuvering of local officials. Then to explain why this was possible, I show that both superior

and inferior levels abdicated their decision-making power, throwing it to commune mayors. My

examples come from the way the village commission dealt with problem cases and the

different kinds of knowledge held at each level. I conclude with suggestions about the relation

of local authorities to the political center.


Law 18 delivered a very powerful instrument into the hands of local political elites and

opened tremendous opportunities of which they would be fools not to take advantage. For

these elites, the process of land-rights restitution was a windfall. Law 18 handed them a

resource everyone wanted and ordered them to distribute it. How did they proceed?

On the evidence of innumerable accounts in the media, as well as rumor and the

firsthand reports of people whom local officials had abused, not very honestly. Having access

to all the information available, they could manipulate it, cause maps and pages and entire

registers to disappear, and withhold facts that claimants required. 10 They could threaten

anyone who complained; they could charge fees illegally or extort bribes for doing their jobs.

Taking advantage of the nebulous situation of lands that had been hidden or exchanged during

the socialist period (see Verdery 1994: 1090-93) enabled them to give good land to their

friends, at the expense of the real owners; the friends would then sell their freely acquired land

and pocket the money.11 Villagers who lodged their claim and received nothing might later find

that the mayor himself was working what they should have received.

In brief, the sources mentioned above presented both commune and village

commissions all over Romania as hotbeds of corruption, giving land to people they liked and

denying it to others regardless of the proofs. This seems a not inappropriate image for Vlaicu,

to which I turn for more concrete illustration. I cannot prove the allegations I report here,

though given their frequent repetition I find them very plausible.

<B>'La Jigoaia' and Mayor Lupu

Restitution in Vlaicu was under the charge of the Geoagiu land commission, headed by

a mayor I will call Mayor Lupu. 12 A long-time Party bureaucrat with many friends in high places,

he was reported to have good relations with Hunedoara county's prefect, county board, and

legal establishment. After his election in 1992 he seems also to have consolidated an alliance

with those members of the commune office who had survived the 'revolution' (the secretary,

treasurer, etc.). At least two of these had already occupied land belonging to others and

therefore had every reason to cooperate with him. Joining them on the land commission were

some additional supporters of Lupu's and a relative or two. Mayor Lupu was not from Geoagiu

but from one of its component villages, a hill settlement with relatively poor soil. Probably for

this reason, he was interested in good land, of which there was a fair amount in the small

floodplain of the river Mureş that flows through both Geoagiu and Vlaicu -- land that had

claimants, of course, because it was the best land in both settlements.

The mayor's game was apparently to obscure the status of large land surfaces, some

of which he worked himself and some of which he gave out to his allies, thus securing their

complicity. In the western-most part of Vlaicu is an area of about 25 ha. whose ownership

status was very unclear. It had been passed back and forth between the collective farms of

Vlaicu and Geoagiu during the socialist period; at first it was not even included in the land to

be returned in Vlaicu. Known as 'la Jigoaia' (the nickname of the former owner), much of this

area had belonged to someone thought to have no heirs. Although this was precisely the kind

of land that should have formed the reserve fund, somehow that never happened. When

villagers in or near this field complained about improper measurement, the surveyor would

always say he would come to measure it but he never did.

One such owner found that the land was worked every year -- and worked in rotation

(now wheat, next year corn), evidently by the same usurper. One day he found an unknown

person there, who claimed to be working the land as a sharecropper -- from Mayor Lupu and

his vice-mayor. A villager with extensive knowledge of that same area observed that Lupu was

filling it with his own people. For example, according to her, a newly employed cleaning

woman for the commune headquarters had agreed to hire on only if given a half hectare, and

the next day she had a piece in 'la Jigoaia.' 'So the mayor gives land in Vlaicu to his

employees from other villages,' she concluded, 'and right next to that piece the vice-mayor is

working another one!'

That the mayor was usurping land in Vlaicu's floodplain seems beyond doubt. Even the

commission's surveyor, in a moment of candor (I had recently given him a bottle of scotch),

waved his arm at the huge expanse of 'la Jigoaia' running from the road down to the river and


This should all have been the committee's, to redistribute for problem cases. But who

do you think was the first person in here after the revolution, before he became mayor?

Lupu. Then-mayor Cristea came to tell him to get out, but he said, 'Forget it. I'm here

to stay.' After that he stood for election, and there'll be no getting him out now.

Then Mayor Lupu had a nasty surprise: an heir had appeared, Iulia, who sued the

commission. Although he obstructed her lawsuit, she eventually won the right to nearly ten

ha.. For another two years he postponed measuring it out for her, disappearing whenever she

came to the commission, or keeping her waiting in the hall for hours and then leaving by the

back door. Finally he measured the land, improperly and in inconvenient locations, when she

was not present. Soon thereafter, he told her that if she didn't work it, as she hadn't the

previous year, he would take it away, following the stipulations of Law 18. When Iulia objected

that she couldn't have worked it until he gave it to her, he replied (according to her): 'You

should have occupied it anyway and worked it!' This hapless woman concluded my discussion

with her thus:

So many trips to Geoagiu! I think about it all the time; I think 'If the mayor says this, I'll

say that.' My son says I'm nuts, because I spend all my waking time on this problem.

If, if, if... For four years he's led us on! I'll be in his office, and these [landless villagers]

from Vlaicu come and say, 'Mr. Mayor, please give us 20 ari.' He says, 'I've nowhere to

get it from! I haven't a single gram of soil.' So I say, 'Give them something from my

land, I'm not getting it all, give them something down there.' He looks daggers at me!

I've spent so much time and money on this. . . . but it's the time as well --

countless trips to Vlaicu, Geoagiu, the city...

None of this, we can assume, mattered to Mayor Lupu, who saw the land as his own resource.

The mayor's relationship to 'la Jigoaia' wrought far more havoc, however, than Iulia's

wasted time and sleepless nights. To show this I must briefly explain about Vlaicu's German

minority, which in the 1970s formed about 20% of the village but by the late 1990s only 3%. I

have discussed elsewhere the history of German-Romanian relations in Vlaicu (Verdery 1983)

and will repeat here only that the Germans had owned considerably more land than the

Romanians. The wealthiest family among them had held 80 ha.; when expropriated in 1945,

they collectively lost 250 ha., 31% of Vlaicu's total arable surface. This land was given out to

Romanian war veterans and landless Vlaiceni, whom I will call the '45ers; they were the ones

who later 'donated' the land to the collective in 1959. In 1991 it was they who received it back,

while the Germans collectively received gardens totalling only 10.3 ha. for 19 claimants --

much less than the 70 ha. they had been expecting.

After unsuccessfully appealing to the county board, in 1992 the Germans sued for their

rights, and won. The Geoagiu commission awoke to a court order awarding them 70 hectares;

as they had requested, the land was to be given in two large blocks (formerly owned by the

wealthiest German farmers) so they could work it in common. With most of the village land

already distributed, the committee had now to find 70 additional hectares. Even though Law

18 stated very clearly that Germans claiming land would receive it only on reserve lands if

there were any, not on their old sites, the land committee decided to give them formerly

German land, as they had asked. This meant pushing off those 70 ha. some 56 families of

'45ers, for whom land would have to be found elsewhere.

The report, signed by all members of the Vlaicu committee as well as the mayor, stated

that the land for '45ers was to come from two places, one of which was 'la Jigoaia.' Had the

letter of Law 18 been followed, Germans rather than '45ers would have received that land.

The problem, of course, was that as we know, Mayor Lupu himself had already illegally

occupied the land with which he ought to have impropriated one or the other group. He had

good reason to give the Germans land where they asked for it, so he could continue the

unlawful practices that both put money in his pocket and gave him a distributable resource.

That he gave them two large fields on their old sites does not require us to believe, as '45ers

did, that he or the county board had been bribed. Lupu's own motives are sufficient

explanation. As state officials saw things, however, Lupu was obstructing one aim of the land

reform: to win landless villagers' support for the ruling party.

From 1992 until 1996 or later, Lupu delayed resolving the situation of the '45ers he had

uprooted by his handling of the Germans. He would give '45ers dividends from the state farms

(not yet dismantled), promise each year to find them a plot next year, and respond piecemeal,

suddenly finding land for people who brought suit against the commission, for instance, but not

for the more patient others. Some local officials and possibly also he himself apparently

encouraged the '45ers to resolve the matter forcibly. Here, at least, is the court testimony of

one Mihai, head of a group of them that in fall 1993 broke in and plowed over the already-

plowed field of the Germans, who immediately sued for damages.


I went to the prefecture, and they told me they couldn't give us the land as long as the

Germans are there. Only if we entered by force . . . That's what they told us, and that's

what the mayor told us too, that he can't resolve the problem unless we enter by force.

'Enter by force and seize your rights!' he told me.

A disaffected '45er observed, 'If he gives us land at the state farm, then we'll be fighting with

the other Romanians who own it. He'd rather we Romanians should fight with Germans, so he

keeps postponing resolution.'

The result was indeed much bad feeling between the '45ers and the Germans,

manifest not only in this forcible occupation but in numerous '45er threats of violence, such

that Germans came to fear leaving their courtyards. Hostility increased as many of them

began to emigrate to Germany, leaving their land in the agricultural cooperative they had

formed and receiving money after each harvest -- while '45ers, most of whom had little if any

other land to use, stood helplessly by. Lupu's actions, in a word, had seriously disrupted ethnic

relations in Vlaicu. But the disruption went beyond this, for Romanian villagers who had

received ancestral land tended to side with the Germans against the '45ers, whom they

derided for having gotten the land 'for nothing' in the 1945 land reform, rather than through

purchase or inheritance. Even worse, Lupu's usurping the reserve lands meant that landless

villagers were left completely without. As he gradually began satisfying aggrieved '45ers by

pushing them onto the land of people even less powerful than themselves, such as widows

and urbanites, bad feeling spread throughout the village, poisoning the atmosphere.

By the time Mayor Lupu was voted out of office in 1996, he had already been working

land at 'la Jigoaia' for four years and keeping the proceeds, and he stood every chance of

receiving title to part of that area. Meanwhile, he had created chaos and social conflict by not

resolving superimposed ownership claims in Vlaicu that would have required him to turn 'his'

land over to someone else. In Geoagiu he had avoided giving out titles altogether, a situation

his successor perpetuated. He had also built a large villa in a nearby resort, apparently by

illegal means, and would be able to rent it out for permanent income. 13

Lupu's actions, then, had a number of effects. First, they contravened the plans of the

central government, which wanted landless households to receive land so they would be

reliable supporters; for this it would happily have alienated a few Germans, who had little

influence on national politics. But Lupu saw things differently. He coddled the Germans and

alienated the landless, in pursuit of his own aggrandizement. Second, toward the same end

he sacrificed social harmony. Discord in Vlaicu would serve him well by keeping the committee

weak and the village unlikely to organize against him. Third, perhaps the most serious

casualty of all was people's confidence in the restitution process. Instead of finding solutions

that would uphold everyone's rightful claims to private property, even if only in part, he blatantly

demonstrated his own prepotency, unchallenged by any legal sanction. He failed to do justice

at a moment when justice was critical to consolidating the new order. If over the decade

villagers across Romania became cynical (like those in Vlaicu) about the emerging private

property regime, people like Lupu had much to do with that outcome. Mayor Lupu and his

clique in Geoagiu commune, and others like them, didn't just usurp the land of others: they

compromised the very idea of a justly acquired hectare of one's own guaranteed by the state

and, thus, the very legitimacy of private property as an institution.

<B>Commune/Center Relations

Why, we might wonder, could people like Lupu continue in this way? Part of the answer

lies in the structural relations of communes with central authorities, particularly the institutional

hiatus between national and local governments. In each election cycle, Romania holds two

sets of elections, one for the president and parliament and another for mayors of communes

and cities. The party or coalition that wins the national elections appoints, from above, the

prefects of Romania's 40 counties, whereas the mayors are elected from below, by the people

in the units they administer. More significant, however, was a feature of Law 18 and

amendments to it: there were no sanctions if local officials failed to implement the law, and the

reorganization of political responsibility had provided no alternative levers. Judges and

lawyers with whom I discussed the question all agreed that this was the main problem with

property restitution; so did Romania's Prime Minister in a television interview in 1993. 14 Asked

why the state did not enforce Law 18 more vigorously, he replied, 'We ought to be firmer. But

we have a separation of powers, especially at the local level. There's not much the prefects

can do. . . . We no longer have direct government control [over what goes on].' The only way

any sort of pressure had been put on the process was that as of about 1994, surveyors were

no longer to be paid a regular salary but only a 'piece rate' according to how many titles they

had completed in a given month.

The entire enforcement mechanism returned final authority to the mayors and

commune commissions. If a claimant brought suit against a commission and won, the courts

or prefects referred execution of the sentence down to the mayor, for prefectures and county

boards did not have the authority to award title. Interviewed by the popular weekly TV program

Village Life, a lawyer from the body investigating land-claims disputes admitted that there was

little her office could do to prevent abuses: 'There's no provision anywhere for the Ministry of

Agriculture to intervene in the process of giving land back. We can't force local authorities to

apply a judicial sentence.' (Later she added, 'Then again, if Law 18 had had sanctions for

those implementing it, no one would have been willing to do so.') 15 Although commissions

could be sued, they were not liable for damages. As a judge told me, 'I can find all sorts of

infractions but have no means available to punish them.' Another observed that she had

resolved to fine the mayors who headed these commissions; then she learned that

(unsurprisingly) many of them had not been reelected and there was no way to extract a fine

from them. In a 1996 conversation, an urbanite to whom local officials in his home village were

refusing to allocate his land explained to me what he thought was happening. 'There's a void

of responsibility -- not a void of power: power is well concentrated there, but responsibility is


In short, local authorities were virtually unpunishable. When the political opposition

came to power in 1996, it attempted to rectify this problem. It proposed amendments that

would give judges full jurisdiction over land-rights cases, which they would no longer have to

refer to commune land commissions for execution; fine recalcitrant mayors for every day of

delaying the resolution of a property claim; assign penalties not only to mayors but to entire

commissions; require all owners to declare the surfaces they held and to present documents

justifying their ownership, with 1-3 year jail sentences if they could not; and so on. 16 Passage

of these amendments proved exceedingly difficult, however, for one of the coalition partners

(the one representing the agrarian elite) bolted. Even after a version finally passed,

implementing it, too, proved arduous, and when the coalition fell from power in November

2000, things reverted to the status quo ante. The state's momentary shift of vision had

scarcely affected that of the mayors.

<B>Accumulating Clients

Law 18, as I observed above, was a political treasure-trove for local elites. These

included the commune administration and the most important members of the land commission

described earlier, many of whom had held positions in the socialist period. Also connected to

them was the retinue of former presidents, technicians, and agronomists of the collective

farms, plus directors of still-functioning state farms and other state agricultural units. Although

many of these people had lost some or all of their ground as a result of Law 18 and might be

expected to block its application, their obstructionism was not just a matter of defending past

privilege: it was also a response to the new opportunity that restitution offered. By failing to

give out titles or to resolve the myriad problems associated with Law 18, these elites could

both use the land themselves (or give it to cronies, as I showed with Mayor Lupu) and also

keep claimants to land in a petitionary and dependent posture. In doing so, they were

behaving like socialist bureaucrats, who established a power base by accumulating clients and

dependents and by cultivating far-flung networks through reciprocity (see Humphrey 1983).

This clientele might help a mayor to build himself a villa (like Mayor Lupu), to be reelected, or

at least to obscure the machinations behind his building and land-use projects.

I believe the titling process was much slower than expected all over Romania in part

for this reason: land was a political asset only as long as it was not given out to its owners.

Why should local elites give out titles, destroying their patronage base? By exploiting the

absentee status of many recipients, people's ignorance about the procedures, and other

ambiguities, mayors could create clients, following the well-hewn path of 'capital accumulation'

so vital in the socialist political economy. Because they could no longer count either on

maintaining their positions for long or on having stable relations with their prefects, who might

be of a different party, they would have to enrich themselves from their local political base.

Creating a web of allies with whom they could collectively exploit land belonging to others was

one good way of doing just that. For these reasons, giving back land and resolving titles

became anything but attractive options. Marvelous illustration of the mentality of such mayors

appeared in a 1993 TV program, in which a mayor explained to the interviewer that he gave

land to people who had helped with asphalting the roads, improving the local water supply

water, etc. In other words, he saw land as his to use in rewarding those who cooperated with


There were other similarities with former times as well, in elites' hierarchical relations.

Despite various laws and political rhetoric ostensibly according 'local autonomy' to commune

mayors relative to the county, local budgets came primarily from county prefects, who could

reward or withhold according to their relations with each mayor.18 This arrangement

encouraged the maintenance of the old system of currying favor with one's superiors so as to

obtain preferential budgetary treatment, even though the election laws had snapped the formal

bureaucratic chain connecting counties with the levels below them. We might think that

mayors would now shift to seeking electoral success rather than cementing hierarchical

relations, but their insecure budgetary base made that a very risky strategy. In a word, most

mayors had very few means for luring voters, but their control of restitution gave them

considerable means for luring allies and dependents, while cultivating their superiors would

help to ensure that the surveillance over their activities was not too great.

The commune's power to allocate property rights thus enabled accumulating 'rights in

people,' as in socialism. Having such power was also a pure sign of the prepotency that raised

mayors above other local officials -- after 1989 as well as before it. Local elites, then, treated

agriculture as a source of political capital rather than seeking to develop its economic potential.

Yet the structural situation of mayors and the impetus to persevere in the habits of the socialist

period are only part of the story of how commune commissions acquired their power over

restitution. Other forces were at work also, including the tendency of both superior and inferior

bodies to throw restitution problems down or up to the commune for resolution, as I will now


<B>Restitution Practices Empower Commune Elites

I have already indicated that higher fora usually returned cases to the communes,

noting for example that judges sent their decisions down to mayors. Both the county board

and the courts to whom claimants appealed tended to respond in this way. When I asked the

Geoagiu agronomist how much freedom they had in their decisions, he replied that higher

authorities gave the commissions a free hand in settling local cases and intervened very little.

He observed that although villagers had the right to appeal local decisions to the county board,

'those guys don't know anything about circumstances here, who's who, who's credible. So

they tend to throw the cases back down to us to settle.' When we realize that the next level of

appeal was the county court, whose sentences were (until 1999) also referred to the

communes for execution, we see that villagers were largely trapped into accepting the

decisions of local elites as unassailable. Vlaiceni perceived the commission's independence

clearly. One person complained about the committee's improper measuring. 'If you were rich,

the "horse" [two-legged measuring device] could take an extra step in several directions, but if

you were poor, they'd knock off a bit instead. And the Geoagiu people went right along with it.

Who keeps an eye on these guys? No one. They have free rein, no one checks up or

supervises what they do.'

Vlaicu's committee members themselves, however, contributed further to the

commune's independence. They simply avoided making difficult decisions, sometimes

aggravating conflict among villagers in the process and sending them to the commune to

appeal. For complicated cases, they might say, 'We'll have to come back with the mayor,' or

'We have to wait until we solve the problem with Germans, then we'll see what we can do for

you,' or 'Once we give out all the land these local owners are entitled to, we'll see if there's any

reserve left for you,' or 'We have to end now, but we'll take care of you next time.' The most

egregious injunction was, 'If you don't want to wait, then break in and occupy the land

yourself!' Urging villagers into direct conflict was a way for the committee to avoid the problem,

for the parties would then most likely end in court. (It was a risky tactic, however: in a 1997 TV

program called 'Crimes for land,' I was told by some who saw it, a villager had killed a member

of the commission; others interviewed said this was good, for 'because of him, half this village

is in court.')

In addition, the committee suffered from the problem that unlike the two outsiders, all

three would have to live in the village long after restitution was over, and by refusing to take

sides in complex cases they were protecting their future relations. A revealing example

concerns a villager, Petru, whose garden someone else was claiming. The first time around,

the committee had awarded it to Petru, but now the former owner had angrily challenged that

decision. After an extensive discussion of who actually had the right to the garden, the

surveyor asked the group, 'What should we do?' The agronomist answered, 'The committee

must decide,' to which a committee member immediately objected, 'But I'm on good terms with

everyone!' Without any vote, the surveyor decided to assign the garden to the former owner.

The episode exposed the delicate relations between Vlaicu committeemen and the outsiders,

as the former refused to decide the fates of fellow villagers, thus forcing the latter to make the

decisions -- and, of course, take the blame. The agronomist assessed this incident to me in

precisely those terms:

We have to help the locals with one another. It's very bad that villagers are asked to

settle quarrels of others they have to live with. So we come in and say it's not the

committee that decides but the law, something bigger than all of us. But the same

motive makes the Vlaicu committeemen blame us outsiders for problems and say we're

the ones who are messing things up.

The less-forgiving surveyor railed against the committee's failure to exercise leadership or to

'have the guts' to decide complex cases, but he would not have to live out his days among

rancorous Vlaiceni.

Nor would he have to live in fear of reprisals. For example, another villager being sued

for his garden had threatened to beat up both the plaintiff and the land committee, should they

come to measure it. On the day the committee was to measure there, two of its three village

members failed to show up. The one who did urged that the measuring be postponed until the

mayor could come, but the surveyor scoffed at him. Since no one would go with him, he

handed me one end of the tape measure and told me where to stand, while the remaining

members and the aggrieved defendant looked on. (I learned of his threat only later.)

The consequence, of course, was to endow the commission and the mayor with even

more power, as local committeemen abdicated their responsibility. Villagers' constant criticism

of their local committee had the same effect. Deeply acquainted with the character flaws and

scheming of their own committee's members, they accorded it no legitimacy. Moreover,


villagers' encounters in other spheres reinforced the idea that the commission was the locus of

power over land reform. If they went to the county board, court, or land registry office, they

were told, 'Go to the commission, go to the mayor; they'll fix it for you.' To empower the

commune commission in this way, however, was to increase the likelihood that locals would

become victims of the machinations of the mayor and his allies; this further undermined the

Vlaicu committee in favor of the commune commission.

There is yet more to be said, however, about Vlaicu's 'gutless' committee: it was

appointed by Mayor Lupu and not elected by villagers. In 1991 Vlaiceni elected three

committeemen widely regarded as fair and honest. As the process of measuring got

underway, however, the best of them resigned, reportedly over the illegalities he was being

asked to ratify. The other two were abruptly replaced in fall 1992 at a village meeting

conducted under the old socialist rules: the mayor's representative read out three names,

asked, 'Are these OK?,' and when there was (understandably) no dissent, he declared them

the new committee. One had spent his working life not in Vlaicu's fields but in a factory and

his family was not well regarded; another was the unpopular former president of the collective

farm, a man of weak character but many political connections. The best-liked of the three was

a heavy drinker who never wanted to offend anyone; he would agree with whoever was

immediately present and was always impressed by people with titles or well-placed relatives.

(Once, a fellow Vlaicean disgruntled with the committee's work admonished him in these

terms: 'You act like a mannequin! You never object to what the surveyor or others are doing

with the land. You're supposed to be the one with knowledge that outsiders don't have. Don't

just ratify everything they do!') With this composition, the committee was weak because its

members were not respected and, moreover, could not agree on anything. The surveyor

asserted to me that the discord among them was making his work virtually impossible.

Thus, Mayor Lupu and his allies rid themselves of committeemen who offered

resistance in favor of others more malleable. This created a committee whose new members

owed their position to him, rather than to their fellow villagers. In other words, the mayor was

again behaving like a Party apparatchik, ensuring clienteles and treating the commune as his

fief. Significantly, he controlled the committee in yet another way: its agronomist was his

nephew. This nephew reportedly encouraged the three members' impulses to acquire land

they weren't entitled to, thus making them complicit in behavior the mayor too was engaged in,

which they would accordingly be loath to expose. Villagers frequently remarked that

committeeman X or Y was from a modest family, so how come he now owns 10 ha.?, thereby

undercutting the committee's credibility. As one committeeman observed of another, Ionel:

'Wherever Ionel said he was interested in a piece of land, the Geoagiu people would write

down "reserve land," and later you'd see Ionel working it. If you asked him why, he'd say it

belonged to some distant relative.'

It is no surprise, then, that Vlaiceni had nothing but complaints about this committee

whom they'd had no say in appointing. The result of its practices was to fortify control by the

mayor and commune commission over the process of handing out land. We can see more of

this process in the different kinds of knowledge held by each level in the commission hierarchy.

Local and Official Knowledges

The top two commissions relied on forms of knowledge very different from that of the

lowest level: the commissions and county boards on the various official records held in

commune archives, and the committees on local knowledge derived from years of having

observed fellow villagers at work in their fields before 1959. Although Law 18 privileged the

records, it also left room for adjudication according to local memory. Both sources of

knowledge are unreliable, of course, the records because they could be falsified or

'disappeared,' the recollections because memory is partisan. Nonetheless, by according

legitimacy to the latter, Law 18 created at least some friction against misuse of the former.

What were these different kinds of knowledge?


Returning land rights to previous owners required both the knowledge held in formal

records and many other forms of knowledge and information. 19 They included knowledge of

the law, of the procedures it required, of the necessary timing, of the bureaucratic competence

of different institutions, and so on. All of these were in some sense formal institutional

knowledges, held by judges, county and commune authorities, some land commissioners,

notaries, etc. None of it was generated, and little of it held, in village communities. In court, in

the notary's office, and in everyday conversations, I repeatedly witnessed villagers' ignorance

of the formal procedures for restitution. For instance, during my rounds with the committee

and my attendance at the county court, I saw a number of misunderstandings about the period

allowed for filing a claim. People would protest that they wanted to file a claim or were

supposed to have more hectares than appeared on their affidavit, only to learn that they

should have filed the claim or contested the assignment in summer 1991; now it was too late.

'But I just now found the paper I need! I couldn't have contested it sooner.' In these

circumstances the outside committeemen would admonish them that the terms for submitting a

petition, a protest, and so on had all been very clearly publicized and if they hadn't paid

attention, there was nothing to be done now. (For their friends or for a little consideration,

however, something might be arranged...)

In addition to these formal knowledges generated and held from without, there were

various kinds of informal knowledge, particularly about ownership patterns in space and time

and about kinship links between past owners and present claimants. These forms of knowing

were generated and held locally; almost no one beyond the community (except myself) had

them.20 Their repositories were elderly Vlaiceni, who were old enough in the 1950s to have

become familiar with the cultivation patterns of their fellow villagers and could (or thought they

could) remember those in the 1990s. Thus, a man in his early 70s in 1991 would have worked

the fields from his teens to age 40; it was possible that he might recall who had cultivated what

parcel next to whom, and if several of these old men got together, they might collectively be

able to put together the village ownership map of 1959. 21 Their genealogical knowledge

connected that map with 1990s Vlaicu.

It was this map, in fact, and not those based on formal figures, that best approximated

the true situation on the ground in 1959, for as I have indicated elsewhere (Verdery 1994), the

self-declarations underlying figures in the official sources were distorted by failures to record

transactions in them or by the interests and stratagems suited to those times. The

shortcomings of the official statistics justified putting elderly villagers on the land committees:

they were assumed to have an essential form of knowledge otherwise lacking. What would

happen if they forgot, disagreed, or used their knowledge in partisan ways, as happened not

just in Vlaicu but everywhere, was another matter.

Throughout my research, questions abounded as to whose knowledge was

authoritative, beginning with everyday conversation but emerging most loudly during land

assignment and contestations, when both confusion and claims to knowledge proliferated.

(One can see some of this in the fieldnotes quoted earlier.) An owner might claim that she

knew exactly where her land was, only to be contradicted by an elderly Vlaicean, or her

neighbor or cousin. 'It was by this tree.' 'No, it was by the stream.' 'I shared a boundary with

Lazar's Ion.' 'No, he was further down. Your boundary was with Iosif's Maria.' 'We had three

hectares.' 'No, you had three yokes, they didn't use hectares then.' 'What makes you think

you know anything about this? They were still wiping snot from your nose while I was already

out working the land.' Then there was recourse to putatively common knowledge: 'The entire

village knows [ştie tot satul] that I was there and you weren't.' Listening to these arguments by

the hour, I was struck by the variety of claims to know authoritatively, by the constant

contradictions among the three committeemen, by the influence that any one of them (the

others absent) could have on the outcome even when dead drunk or obviously drawing as

much on his imagination as his knowledge, and by the tremendous amount of detail the two

Geoagiu-based committeemen would have to control in order to do their job properly -- control

they as outsiders simply couldn't have. Lacking this, they had to rely on the locals with their

own axes to grind.

For villagers to claim land successfully meant mobilizing several different kinds of

information. They had to know when and where the committee would be working; the official

figures in the entry petitions or agricultural register as well as the topographic number and file

number in the land registry book (or how to get those), in case of a lawsuit; who their kinsmen

were and how they were related; what land they had, in which locations, with which neighbors;

how long they had for filing a claim and contesting their assignment; how to appeal to the

county board; how to bring suit and do so effectively. Most of the requisite knowledge was not

simply lying around. It had to be mobilized; one had to know at what sites to mobilize it and to

have the contacts for doing so. Otherwise one was likely to fall victim to the machinations of

the commission, with its control over all the formal sources. Did Vlaiceni have these

resources? Some did, on the evidence of the over 30 lawsuits in which they were involved.

But they also had to have nerve, for in socialist times, not only did villagers have no confidence

in the courts: they viewed going to court as shameful. You went to court only if you were

accused of something, not by bringing suit yourself. In the early 1990s, then, bringing suit

required a certain fearlessness that not all villagers possessed -- initially, at least.

To show what it took for an average villager to bring suit successfully, as well as how

many impediments the commission might place in their way, I will introduce Victoria Iancu, a

remarkably brave and intelligent peasant woman who was about 70 years old when

decollectivization began. In 1950, Victoria's family had owned just under six hectares of good

land. In 1952 Party cadres confiscated that land, which they would later use in starting the

collective. The family endured much suffering over the next few years, and this hardened

Victoria's already substantial will. When she discovered, in 1991, that because her land had

been confiscated (rather than 'donated') she was not receiving it back, she immediately

contacted her son for help in contesting the decision. This son, Aurel, lived in town, held a

state job, and had good access to legal advice. After consulting with well placed lawyers, she

filed a complaint in July 1991; that Victoria had kept the family's land records from before,

including the topographic and file numbers in the land registry book, facilitated their complaint.

For the next year, Victoria was constantly on the road to press her case. She made

innumerable trips to the capital, to the notary in town, to the commission in Geoagiu. Under

Aurel's regular guidance, she gave packages of coffee, other presents, and a tip to the

functionary who was supposed to authenticate her claim so he would bump her up, ahead of

the swarms of other people seeking the same service. For the first court date in January 1992,

the commission failed to submit the papers on time; the case was postponed a month. This

time the papers arrived (she and Aurel had pestered the mayor continually to be sure he was

sending them), though only at the last minute. Upon inspection, the papers -- signed by the

mayor and the Vlaicu committee members, two of them her relatives! -- averred that her land

was under the buildings of the state farm and was thus unreturnable. Since this was

completely false, Aurel advised her to postpone the date again. With yet more effort, she

obtained a declaration from the state farm director that her land was not there, then

resubmitted the complaint. Although she told me she had not tried to bribe the judge (as

Vlaiceni assumed), she admitted to paying off the person who scheduled the cases so she

wouldn't waste an entire day in court.

Following the election of a new mayor, Victoria finally received a positive judgment in

June 1992 (although the story did not end even then, for the commission once again sought to

falsify her allotment on her land title). She couldn't begin to estimate for me the time and

money that had gone into securing this result, and she was convinced that without Aurel's

intervention it would never have happened. 'He was the one who knew what we had to do,

that we had to postpone when that false paper came from the commission. When the new

mayor asked me how I knew the correct legal form for all these papers, I told him my son did it.

He congratulated us!' But equally important, she believed, was that they had all the formal

proofs. 'If my papers were all in order, the court had to rule in my favor, no?' In other words,

Victoria relied not on the local knowledge of village elders but on the formal sort, and she

exerted great effort to break through the commission's monopoly on it.

Note what this success has required: access to extensive knowledge of many kinds,

connections, money, mobility, stamina and determination, a conviction of her rights (and of the

probity of the courts, a view that's rare), a sense of moral purpose. Victoria's success also

required a refusal to be cowed by the commission -- its delays, its falsified papers, its

intimidation. Even though she could obtain adequate proofs by going around them, that took

time and effort. Thus, the commune's control of knowledge forced villagers to go to great

lengths in pursuit of their rights.

I have already mentioned some of the ways that commissions and commune officials

might modify information to their own advantage; here are others. They might, like the

secretary of Geoagiu commune, write their own families into some of the best land (protected

by the mayor, he was not prosecuted but encouraged to retire). They might obliterate parts of

the archives, especially agricultural registers and maps. When one villager obtained a detailed

map of village land from the county archives, Mayor Lupu was furious: he had lost his

monopoly control. For purposes of implementing the law, communes obtained sources of

knowledge they did not usually possess: the county's chief notary explained to me, for

instance, that although it is strictly illegal to copy the maps of the land registry book, in the

present circumstances he had permitted commune officials to do so to help them in their work.

This, of course, further enhanced their ability to monopolize and manipulate knowledge.

Utilizing official data and the genealogical knowledge they gained from village land

committees, local officials could easily identify areas that had no heirs, so as to make use of

these themselves, as I have shown.

In thinking about such struggles over knowledge, we should recall the context from

which they emerged. This point was brought home to me by the committee's agronomist, as

we talked about how my accompanying the committee had enlivened my persistent reputation

for being a spy. 'People can't imagine what anyone could be doing here with us. They know

all these data about surface areas used to be secret. Not even two agronomists could talk

about areas! If another one asked me how big my collective farm was, I wouldn't tell him.' In

the socialist period, there were continual struggles over information: at each level, Party cadres

falsified it so they would look good to their superiors, who therefore had no way of knowing the

actual situation. 22

For elites to manipulate information and subordinates to counter with knowledge of

their own was commonplace; it should come as no surprise that this conflictual relationship to

knowledge is part of restitution. Given the unsupervised void in which commissions worked,

however, they clearly had the upper hand. They knew the law's complex procedures (as

villagers did not) and controlled access to proofs; county boards lacking local information

urged them to resolve problem cases, and villagers did too, so as to protect delicate social

relations. In consequence, local knowledge gave way before more official knowledges. All

these pressures served to concentrate power in the hands of commune officials and their



In closing, I wish to consider the implications of my argument for relations between the

center and local authorities. Did commune officials exercise so much power in

decollectivization because the center wanted them to, or because it could not control them --

that is, did the state foresee the outcome or not? Most educated Romanians I spoke with

asserted the former. They claim that the crypto-communist government of Ion Iliescu, which

dominated politics between 1990 and 1996 and then again after 2000, never wanted to

dismantle socialist agriculture. Although assessing that kind of claim requires ethnography of a

kind different from mine, there is admittedly some support for this view. Most telling are

President Iliescu's occasional statements throughout the decade that small-scale cultivation is

nonviable and larger-scale units the way of the future -- or even that private property is 'silly,' a

remark he made shortly after his reelection in 2000. Then there was the government's failure

to create the Agency for Rural Planning and Development that Law 18 required, and without

which no land sales could occur. Additional evidence of dawdling was the snail's pace in

setting up a cadastre. Those involved in the USAID project to help with surveying for it

complained at the government's long postponement in providing the necessary seven

cartographic points, which they saw as a delaying tactic. 23

Although I agree that one might interpret these and other events as evidence of a

strong political center ordering its subordinate units to put the brakes on privatization, I remain

doubtful that such an intention (if it existed) was so easily translated into practice. To think

otherwise presupposes both a Romanian government with more power than I believe it had

and a local sphere obedient to central directives (a laughable image). Understanding the

motives for local officials to retard decollectivization makes it unnecessary to envision them as

following Iliescu's every cue. Just as western analysts failed to perceive the signs of

decomposition in socialism because they attended only to central Party policies, I think

attributing too directive a role to state actors after 1989 leads to the same misperception.

Instead, we should see much of the 'evidence' of central footdragging as the results of fierce

political battles over whether to modify Law 18 or not, battles in which the opposing forces

were so evenly matched as to produce paralysis, rather than decisive direction. Although

some political leaders might indeed have hoped to craft restitution plans that would have only

a limited effect, success was unlikely given the necessary compromises, the pervasive

uncertainty, and the constant improvisation characteristic of 1990s Romanian politics.

Assuming a weak state rather than a strong one seems to me to account for a number

of aspects of Romania's postsocialist transformation. Central incapacity concerning the

collection of revenues, for example, both contributed to and revealed state weakness -- a point

made frequently for Russia. 24 In a 1996 TV interview, the head of Romania's Court of Accounts

claimed that his office had found one trillion lei in the underground economy that should have

gone to state revenues; he estimated that this was perhaps one-tenth of the actual amount so

owed. He added that if the hemorrhage of foreign currency out of the country were staunched,

Romania would have no need of loans from the IMF and similar sources. 25 That it continued

indicates that there was no power strong -- or interested -- enough to prevent it. Likewise, I

believe that open abuses of power in implementing Law 18 at the commune level imply the

center's ineffectual control over its subordinates, if not its collusion. It colluded because it

could not control them, precisely because it could no longer offer them protection and benefits

adequate to securing their allegiance as in the heyday of socialism (see Staniszkis 1989).

In arguing for a weak rather than a strong state, I am not denying that members of the

'new red bourgeoisie' represented by the party of Ion Iliescu (though not by them alone) might

have opposed dismantling the planned economy from which they had profited before. I deny,

rather, that the forces opposing transformation were sufficiently concerted to achieve such an

objective, and above all that they had the organizational means necessary for doing so

through the state. The political field was too fragmented, with groups and individuals

constantly shifting sides, coalitions, and party identities. Postsocialist Romanian politics bore

the distinctive stamp of the Ceauşescu period, its state not strong but weakened by parasitism,

barely controlled anarchy, and scavenging on the part of virtually everyone -- all features of the

Romanian scene even as I write (October 2001). 26

Under Ceauşescu, such behavior had reflected the ever more straitened circumstances

of people's lives, as the leader's self-imposed austerity program drained the country of

resources and his skillful manipulations turned people against one another. His was a classic

instance of the 'spoiler state' (Gross 1988), whose power derives not from generating

productive activity but from preventing it. Indeed, in 1996 a U.S. businessman in Bucharest

explained to me in these very terms what he had learned from several years of trying to sell

tractors there:

In 1991-92, authority broke down altogether. You find pockets of authority around a

prefect or two, but no central authority. If people at the local level can reach a

consensus on something that's low-profile, then OK, but a high-profile item has to go

up to the government, and they can kill it. That's all the center can do: kill things.

Government authority doesn't come down, it only goes up. If four or five ministers

make a concerted effort something might happen, but even then, they may order the

bureaucracy 'Do it,' and the bureaucracy does nothing because they're sure there's no

central authority behind the order. At the lower levels survival dictates that things have

to get accomplished, like distributing food and other products, bartering, etc. But at the

center, nothing pushes things to happen. Various groups have trouble agreeing to do

anything; you get clusters of them forming trading cartels, but they can't deal with each

other; there's a standoff.

To accept this man's view is not to argue that what dominated 1990s Romania were

the legacies of socialism. It is merely to acknowledge certain similarities between the place of

Romania in the global economy of the 1980s and in the 1990s: a place of low priority for

international capital and of consequently diminished prospects for Romania's elites to enrich

themselves by pursuing western-style economic development. In these circumstances,

success would come from continuing to accumulate political capital, from scavenging rather

than promoting economic development, from widening one's space for maneuver by opposing

efforts to recentralize power, and from becoming parasitic on the restitution process rather than

completing it.

To understand how this worked, however, as I have tried to do, is to gain unexpected

knowledge of the effect of global developments on the Romanian state. Because not just East

Europeans but international agencies such as the World Bank, the European Development

Bank, and the International Monetary Fund placed property reform high on the agenda of

postsocialist politics, we might assume that an erosion of state power would be the inevitable

consequence of removing from central control the revenues from socialist property on which

the center had depended. That consequence was indeed inevitable -- and was perhaps one

motive for western advisors' insistence on property reform to begin with: to diminish the

strength of states they (erroneously) perceived as powerful. But we might better see that

effect by looking at the dismantling of socialist industry rather than of agriculture, my subject

here. Decollectivization shows us something else instead: the reconfiguration of state power

not from diminished revenues but from the necessity of empowering the local authorities

without whom, given the magnitude of the process, restitution could not be implemented.

From this insight we might begin to wonder at the effects of the earlier process --

collectivization itself -- upon the attempt to create new socialist states in the 1930s and 1950s,

for that immense undertaking too was impossible without empowering local cadres. Can we

discern here sources of the relative weakness of those Party-states that western ideology

presented as 'totalitarian'? Is this further evidence of the problems inherent in research

methods that overemphasize the view from the top? If so, then here is yet another reason to

eschew 'seeing like a state' in favor of the ethnographic work that enables us to see, instead,

like a mayor.


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Figure 1. Organizational Levels of Restitution Process

Administrative Law 18 Compositiona

Unit Executive Body

Village Committee 3 village residents + 3 from commission: mayor (head),

agronomist, and surveyor
Commune/ Commission The above 6 + other villages’ committee members,
other administrative personnel from commune/
Municipality municipality and former collective farm, and jurist from
county capital
County Board County prefect, other county administrative personnel,
head notary, and directors of cadastre office, state
farm trust, and other offices concerned with land

a a
As given in Law 131/1991, published in Monitorul Oficial al României III (43): 1-23.

Acknowledgments: I am very grateful to Michael Burawoy and Paul Willis for their
improvements to this essay and to Loic Wacquant for encouraging me to produce it. The
research on which this paper is based was supported by grants from IREX (the International
Research and Exchanges Board) with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities,
the United States Information Agency, and the US Department of State, which administers the
Russian, Eurasian, and East European Research Program (Title VIII); and also by National
Science Foundation Grant # xxxx. I am grateful for the support of these organizations,
recognizing that they might well disagree with my views.
. The Transylvanian location is significant, for that region's property history and structure are very
different from those of Romania's other parts, owing to Transylvania's prior inclusion in the Habsburg
Empire. The longevity of private ownership and the system of land registration in Transylvania make
the outcome of restitution differ significantly from the rest of Romania.
. During that period, villagers beginning their spring planting discover that others have encroached
on their land and come to the land commission to complain. These two months were part of over a
year's research in Vlaicu, a village about which I have written elsewhere (e.g., Verdery 1983, 1994),
between September 1993 and August 2000.
I participated in and observed the land committee's work in two ways. 1) Tipped off by a
member that a meeting was imminent, I would go to the office and sit expectantly by the phone (one
of only three in Vlaicu). No one ever asked me to leave, though many villagers looked at me
quizzically when they came in. 2) For three weeks I accompanied the committee on its rounds when
it measured household gardens. Although at first the committee members were a bit nervous at my
accompanying them, they soon came to see my presence as a good thing, for it would indicate to
Vlaiceni that they were doing nothing untoward. Indeed, this activity spawned yet another rumor
about what I was doing in the village: I was spying on the committee for the mayor!
. See Verdery 1991 (chapters 2 and 6) and 1996 (chapters 1 and 7); see also Staniszkis 1989,
Gross 1988.
. Law 18 applied only to the land held in collective farms (74% of Romania's arable land), not that in
state farms (21%). The distinction is important (see Verdery 1994), but not for this essay.
. I have the figure from the head of the OCOTA office of my county, the unit charged with
overseeing all the measurements and preparing the titles for signature. Note that the figure of 80%
refers only to the land in collective farms, not Romania's total agricultural surface.
. That was even greater than the fragmentation evident in 1948, when 36% of all holdings were
under one hectare.
. The mean holding distributed in the reform was 2.2 ha.
. This is reportedly the lowest number used by the World Bank; the Bucharest Institute for Agrarian
History, which gave me the figure, instead estimated each reconstituted holding at 7-8 parcels. In my
field area one village had over 20 as the average number of parcels/holding.
9. The text of this law can be found in Monitorul Oficial al României III (37), 1991 .
. See Verdery 1994: 1101. See also Cartwright 2001: 150-155 and 176-186, for other examples of
this kind.
. See, e.g., Adevărul, November 25, 1998; Ziua, September 21, 1998; România liberă, November
21, 1998; Adevărul, March 1997.
. Although Mayor Lupu was generally cordial with me, he seemed uncomfortable with my presence.
A villager told me that in one of his first meetings as mayor he had remarked that owing to the
revolution, "that American spy" would no longer be coming around. Because I found it impossible to
get very far with him in interviews, I describe him in terms used by many others in whose judgment I
have confidence.
. This story has a more sinister, indeed tragic, side. The treasurer of Geoagiu commune hanged
himself after irregularities were revealed in various officials' procurement of building material.
. Prime Minister Văcăroiu on Viaţa satului, November 28, 1993.
. Viaţa satului, January 23, 1994.
. Interview with Vasile Lupu, vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies, 1994.
. "Patru ani mandatul garantat?" December 8, 1993. The interviewer added that most mayors they
approached refused to speak with them on camera.
. See Adevărul, May 28 1996, for example, which says the problem with local officials is that the
legislation invokes autonomy but sanctifies centralism, directing funds preferentially as the governing
party wishes; thus local autonomy remains an empty slogan.
. For my purposes here, the terms "knowledge" and "information" can be interchangeable, though I
would not make this a universal claim.
. I did not have detailed knowledge of field cultivation but had the 1948 agricultural census, which
contained the size of parcels and their ordering in space -- a listing that several villagers found very
useful. I had also reconstituted genealogies from the middle of the 1800s. Perhaps unfortunately, I
was not present in Vlaicu when this information was most urgently needed in 1991, though several
people asked me later to explain kin ties they found implausible.
. See de Waal 2001 for discussion of the role of old men in reconstituting field boundaries in
northern Albania.
. For an illuminating discussion of the place of information in socialist systems, see Szakolczai and
Horváth 1995.
. I have this from an interview with the head of the USAID office in Bucharest in 1994.
. See, for example, Woodruff 1999.
. Channel Antenna 1, June 7, 1996.
. See Verdery 1991: chapter 6 for explanation of this view.