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Elena-Alis Costescu promotes democracy in Romania

The Raţiu Center advocates for human rights, accountability among public officials, and the participation of youths in civil society.

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    'It is not enough to have democratic elections or to have a democratic constitution. You have to be backed up by citizens that know their rights and know how to exercise their rights,' says Elena-Alis Costescu, executive director of The Raţiu Center for Democracy in Romania.
    Courtesy of The Raţiu Center for Democracy
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“There is no democracy without democrats.”

Those words, attributed to Polish journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, have taken on special meaning for Elena-Alis Costescu.

The quote is posted on the website of a Romanian nongovernmental organization, The Raţiu Center for Democracy, of which Ms. Costescu serves as executive director, and it speaks well to the organization’s mission. The nonprofit group, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014, aims to promote democracy, multiculturalism, and an open society.

“There is a lot to do in Romania,” says Costescu, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology.

It was during the initial phase of her studies at Babeş-Bolyai University in the nearby city of Cluj-Napoca that Costescu sought out the Raţiu Center, then in its infancy, to volunteer.

During a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor in the guest house of the Raţiu Center’s headquarters in the small town of Turda, Costescu recalled discovering early in her collegiate career that she wanted to find a way to help combat the corruption that was so prevalent in Romanian politics and government.

“Very soon after I joined the university, I realized that I would never want to work in a political party,” she recalled. “I said to myself that this corruption at the political level [would have] to be somehow countered by the civil society.”

The Raţiu Center’s purpose matched Costescu’s interests, and save for a short break she took to finish her doctoral studies, she has never left.

Raţiu Center programs revolve around promoting human rights, encouraging active citizenship, ensuring accountability among public officials, and promoting multicultural policies and participation by youths in civil society. The NGO’s namesake, Ion Raţiu (1917-2000), is well-known throughout Romania as a life-long opponent of communism and an advocate for democracy.

It is because of the nation’s communist past that strengthening its present democracy is so vital, Costescu says.

“Every kind of issue you have, you need to address that issue through a democratic framework,” she says. “It is not enough to have democratic elections or to have a democratic constitution. You have to be backed up by citizens that know their rights and know how to exercise their rights, and also they have to know how to make their political representatives accountable.”

The work of the Raţiu Center, she says, is not without its challenges.

“One of the serious issues that is due to the [former communist] regime is the fact that people lack confidence in each other, and also in the system,” she says, describing a fairly prevalent attitude that “regardless of what we are doing, nothing will change.”

She disagrees with this sentiment, arguing that every citizen is in a position to serve the country by helping to combat corruption and support democratic ideals.

“In Romania, we need this kind of NGO to promote democracy,” she says of the Raţiu Center. “We are still in the process of consolidating democracy, so we need all kinds of … civil society initiatives.”

From fighting human trafficking to encouraging youths to become active citizens, the Raţiu Center has taken steps to enhance civil society. One program helps to track the promises made by politicians while running for office, and to monitor whether those promises are kept.

Costescu has been particularly involved in addressing the lack of civic education in high schools. Through student and teacher projects youths monitor how government works, identify community challenges, and help find solutions.

One project involved students raising funds and working with city hall to build a fence around a school to protect the students from a busy road.

“We only need to give them a voice, and after that they will act as full citizens,” Costescu says, emphasizing the importance of youths as future voters.

Last year’s 10th anniversary celebration included recognition of some of the Raţiu Center’s accomplishments.

“We are very proud that in these years we had almost 10,000 beneficiaries of our projects,” she says.

The center is now shifting to more of a national and international focus, Costescu says. It is also putting finishing touches on a community center in Turda, which will house a theater, workshops, a debate club, and more.

“At the end of the work day, I go home with a high level of satisfaction,” she says.” I know that the team I am working with ... can make a difference.”

• For more information on the Raţiu Center, visit www.ratiudemocracycenter.org.

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