When one thinks of Romania's capital, "upbeat" rarely comes to mind. It is a sprawl of bleak, concrete high-rises, decaying 19th-century palaces, and prefabricated street kiosks, where stray dogs and street children compete for the sympathy of pedestrians.
But anticipation is in the air in Bucharest and other cities and towns across Romania.
Since taking office two months ago, the new center-right government has been cleaning house: Seemingly omnipotent state officials have been turned out of office, untouchable criminals arrested, and once-reviled dissident and ethnic minority leaders have been appointed to high government positions.
President Emil Constantinescu promises more: tough economic reforms, an end to endemic corruption, and an investigation to reveal the truth about Romania's mysterious 1989 revolution.
"It's not just a change of governments, it's a change of regimes," says political analyst Gabriel Andreescu of the independent Group for Social Dialogue. "Romania has been ruled by a mafia, which has used its control of the economy to enrich themselves. What the new government undertakes is not simply a struggle against corruption, but rather one to establish the rule of law."
Since the December 1989 revolt against Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania had been ruled by a group of former Communists. Until being voted out of office in November, they used control over state television, secret service, and local administrations to maintain their control of the country's political and economic life.
Opposition politicians, pro-democracy demonstrators, and leaders of the Hungarian minority were targeted for attacks by armed mobs of coal miners and migrant peasant workers, who are reported to have received instructions, transportation, and supervision from police and state officials. Such state-directed mob violence in 1990 - including violent interethnic clashes in Tigru Mures and a rampage by miners in Bucharest - left several dead and hundreds wounded. It also hurt Romania's image abroad.
Since sweeping the elections in November, the new government has made an accounting of these events - and fighting state corruption - top priorities. The leader of the miners has been detained by police investigating his role in mob violence and mafia activities. President Constantinescu pardoned an ethnic Hungarian man imprisoned after the Tigru Mures events, and relieved several top country officials in Transylvania of their posts.
The old heads of state television, the national archives, and other institutions have been replaced by individuals more committed to the free flow of information.
"People are even more interested in justice being made than they are about the standard of living or day-to-day economic problems," Constantinescu told the Monitor in an exclusive interview. "The popular mentality has changed a great deal in the past seven years. People are ready for real change and reform, and are prepared to bear the costs."
Higher prices on horizon
While the president's anticorruption campaign clearly has widespread support, necessary economic reforms may not. Ongoing negotiations between the new government and the International Monetary Fund are expected to result in a harsh stabilization program in exchange for new credits. Economists predict energy and food prices to jump three or four times relative to salaries - a daunting prospect for ordinary Romanian families.
"The government must accept an austerity program if we are to avoid total economic collapse like they face in Bulgaria," says Ilie Serbanescu, an economist based in Bucharest.
"The government has the determination to take the necessary steps; they're afraid that some of these corrections will be too painful for the population to withstand." He says IMF and World Bank support for social support is vital if austerity measures - price liberalization, closure of loss-making factories, and streamlining of social-welfare programs - are to succeed.
"Communism is dead in political and economic terms, but it still has support in social terms across Eastern Europe," says prominent political analyst Silviu Brucan who held high offices during Romania's Stalinist period in the 1950s and early '60s.
"Principles of job security and social justice still run strong across the region. But the transition process cannot be stopped once it has started. We have to go the whole way, and we need to do it quickly while the external support is there," says Mr. Brucan.