Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bucharest: A Fusion of Fresh Ideas, New Friends, and Mysterious Hosts

By George Turner, UK YATA Member

For participants such as myself, the run up to the Young Atlanticists’ Summit in Bucharest was filled with curious anticipation. Who would be the final speakers addressing us? and who exactly were our hosts? the secretive Romanian Intelligence Service.

My arrival in Bucharest, a day earlier than the majority of the participants, added to the mystery. I was met at the airport by two men who informed me that they were taking me to my accommodation, but whose English extended little further than that. Our final destination ended up being the student residence of the faculty of economics, where the early arrivals were staying until our transfer to the Romanian Intelligence Service Academy the next day.

As we sped through the streets of Bucharest, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming security presence, there were groups of policemen standing on every street corner throughout the city. Romania had brought in 10,000 extra police from around the country to Bucharest that week. Lining the security corridor through which the worlds leaders whizzed through the city, were armored and armed men who bore a resemblance to judge dread. Teams of marksmen and special forces roamed the rooftops and helicopters hummed in the air.

The NATO summit had taken over the city, and its presence was felt everywhere. Every lamp post flew the triptych of Romanian, EU, and NATO flags, and billboards around the city carried images of Saakashvili, reminding the west of Georgia’s firm commitment to joining NATO. The type of advertisement that could only appear during a NATO summit. That Romania was taking the hosting of the NATO summit so seriously was of course no surprise. However what was a surprise was the almost equal regard in which our Young Atlanticists’ Summit was held.

From the two addresses from the Romanian President, the prestigious lineup of speakers that included George Bush and and a parade of other presidents and foreign ministers, to the enthusiasm of our mysterious hosts, The Romanian Intelligence Service, the Young Atlanticists were certainly not neglected in Bucharest. Our hosts went to every effort to make us feel welcome. The staff were always friendly and helpful and made sure we were amply supplied with toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo and other amenities to make our stay as comfortable as possible. This all went a long way to help us ignore the certain idiosyncrasies of staying in an intelligence service academy, such as the curtain-less windows and the armed guards patrolling the perimeter.

There was a great eagerness on the part of the speakers to speak to us. Perhaps they simply enjoyed the more casual atmosphere that our Summit offered, like Thomas Lives, who encouraged us to stop being such Marxists, Groucho Marx that was, or DavidMiliband who threw off his jacket and shirked the podium to stroll to the floor of the auditorium and address us from the front of the stage. Or perhaps like Mikhael Saakashvili, they genuinely appreciated the opportunity to speak to a younger audience. Saakashvili commented to us how happy he was to be able to escape from the “old guys” for a moment, and sadly reflected that he was beginning to look less like us and more like them. At the end of the NATO summit, it was the Young Atlanticists’ Summit, that was chosen as the venue by the Romanian President to broadcast live to nation his report the events of the preceding days.

From all of these things one could only take away the great feeling of pride that the Romanian government had in holding the NATO summit and an avid desire to show the world the great progress that their country was making. It was clear that our hosts wanted the Young Atlanticists to travel back to their home countries and tell the world about Romania.

In the end the great efforts that the Intelligence Service made to engender a positive view of their country, with their many gifts of DVDs, coffee table books and literature, were superfluous. The grand symbolism of the event was enough to demonstrate the vast progress of Romania and Eastern Europe. The Young Atlanticist’s summit was held in the Romanian Intelligence Service Headquarters, the former Headquarters of the Securitate, one of the most repressive secret police forces of the former Eastern bloc. A building within which former spy-masters would have plotted the surveillance of enemy NATO summits was now facilitating a dialogue between allied youth. The NATO Summit itself was being held in the Parliament building, the former Presidential palace of Nicolai Ceausescu, and a building whose gargantuan size once stood for totalitarian rule.

Aside from promoting Romania, the Summit was also a success in connecting many bright and talented young people from around the world. I personally felt in awe of the achievements of my fellow Atlanticists, whether it was as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan or organizing a study abroad in Thailand. Friendships and perhaps some even closer relationships were formed, aided at all times by the Romanian Intelligence Service’s generous provision of alcohol. With the commitment made to found a YATA chapter in Afghanistan, this young people’s network will expand even further afield helping facilitate a cultural and intellectual dialogue that can only be of benefit to all involved.

Looking forward we can hope that the many friendships made and cross-cultural bonds formed will remain strong, and that the Young Atlanticists will help to promote a greater understanding between countries and cultures, and contribute to an international system that is fair, free and open for years to come.

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