Andrei Popescu: From NetCom to Deputy Youth Minister in Romania

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Have you ever won­dered how it is to work inside a gov­ern­ment? Whether you could actu­al­ly make a change? This is what hap­pened to Andrei Popes­cu. The charis­mat­ic for­mer Net­Com speak­er, Pres­i­dent of AEGEE-Bucuresti and Ago­ra organ­is­er in 2003 sud­den­ly became Deputy Youth Min­is­ter in Roma­nia in Decem­ber 2015. “Two col­lab­o­ra­tors of mine came up with the idea that I should be the Min­is­ter of Youth and Sports”, Andrei recalls. “They start­ed a cam­paign and a peti­tion signed by almost 2000 peo­ple and more than 100 youth orga­ni­za­tions. It did not work out as a min­is­ter but at the begin­ning of Decem­ber I was being appoint­ed sec­re­tary of state.” His term last­ed 404 days, until 17th of Jan­u­ary 2017, when the cur­rent gov­ern­ment took over. In the Gold­en Times Andrei looks back at this event­ful peri­od.

Andrei Popes­cu at the Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty of AEGEE-Bucuresti in 2002.

GT: Andrei, how was your expe­ri­ence as deputy min­is­ter in Roma­nia? 
Andrei Popes­cu: Do you know that feel­ing when you just fin­ished some­thing that is so great to have as an expe­ri­ence, how­ev­er not some­thing that you would like to do it again? Pret­ty much that was the feel­ing when I left in Jan­u­ary.

GT: How come?
Andrei: It was hard. Very hard. But total­ly worth it. The best and most accel­er­at­ed learn­ing expe­ri­ence ever. I was jump­ing in a struc­ture with an orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture that is pret­ty much based on every­thing you have been fight­ing before, backed by only two sup­port points: first, your team of coun­cil­lors that come and go with you and sec­ond the expe­ri­ence gained in the youth sec­tor — not bad to have when deal­ing with youth poli­cies and youth affairs. Plus that child­ish inno­cence that let you believe that it can be done despite all the “good advice” – albeit some­times very hon­est — giv­en to you that things should be done slow­er, and, to be fair, should not be done at all.

Andrei at the Euro­pean Coun­cil of Youth Min­istries in 2016

GT: Sounds like a real cul­ture shock…
Andrei: It often felt like two worlds col­lid­ing. On one hand you have the “sys­tem” based on ancient rules pro­tect­ed fierce­ly by some old guardians with one prin­ci­ple: it can­not and should not be done. After all, the best way to pre­serve this sys­tem is to do noth­ing at all while, God for­bid, some­thing might change. On the oth­er hand you have a vibrant sec­tor con­sist­ing of young peo­ple that can­not wait much longer while, well, they will not be young for much longer and they have press­ing needs now — vary­ing from access to edu­ca­tion and social inclu­sion to access to labour mar­ket and all types of emer­gent needs.
Than you have the peo­ple at the cen­tre and those work­ing in the min­istry all over the coun­try with youth and stu­dents cen­tres that are col­laps­ing due to the lack of fund­ing in the youth infra­struc­ture. All of them unmo­ti­vat­ed due to the low­est wages in the pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion.
Last but not least you have a min­istry where you need to com­pete with the focus and pub­lic fund­ing of sports. That takes the lion part — pret­ty much around 90% of the min­is­te­r­i­al bud­get.

GT: It’s sad that the youth aspect played such a lit­tle role.
Andrei: Do not get me wrong, I am not sor­ry at all for doing it, actu­al­ly I am very proud of what hap­pened in this year and a bit. I dis­cov­ered some won­der­ful peo­ple in the “sys­tem” as well, who are doing their best to keep it togeth­er and make it work as good as it can. And togeth­er we did amaz­ing things like revis­ing the whole youth pol­i­cy, includ­ing youth law, nation­al strat­e­gy and pub­lic pol­i­cy for sup­port­ing the young peo­ple through the youth infra­struc­ture; or like build­ing up a net­work of youth work­ers and a sup­port sys­tem for youth orga­ni­za­tions. And it is worth it even more just because it was hard to do it.

Andrei Popes­cu in 2002 — at the Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty of AEGEE-Bucuresti

GT: What did you per­son­al­ly learn in terms of skills or knowl­edge?
Andrei: I do not know what should I start with.

  • Patience. Loads of it in dif­fer­ent forms from lis­ten­ing to every­body to hold­ing my hors­es when I want­ed some­thing to be done faster or bet­ter — pret­ty much most of the time.
  • Spot­ting the bull­shit. It is one of the most impor­tant skills when a lot of peo­ple are either try­ing to sell some­thing that is not quite what is should be or hold­ing rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion back that could change your deci­sion. First I sucked in it, then I got a bit bet­ter, but I still  do. Thanks God I had reli­able peo­ple around with a much more sen­si­tive nose than mine.
  • Net­work­ing. It took me around four months to under­stand what but­tons I should push and to whom I should talk in order to move one thing or anoth­er. The para­dox is that the Min­istry of Youth and Sports should devel­op, imple­ment and mon­i­tor poli­cies addressed to more than a quar­ter of the Roman­ian pop­u­la­tion but it is one of the Min­istries with the low­est pro­file.

GT: What else did you learn?
Andrei: Tol­er­ance to ambi­gu­i­ty. I heard the term before, I thought that I under­stood it but only here I had the chance to tru­ly test it. As odd as it may be, I did not dis­cov­er its real mean­ing in an inter­na­tion­al envi­ron­ment, but in the Min­istry of Youth and Sports. I often found myself facil­i­tat­ing var­i­ous con­flicts among dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers and real­ized that I could under­stand and ful­ly sup­port some­times con­flict­ing points of view. That was very help­ful to con­vince them to stay some­times at the same table and reach and agree­ment.
There were many oth­er. Last but not least I would like to men­tion one of the best life skills I acquired by chance: dri­ving! Low pro­file min­istry nor­mal­ly comes with low bud­get and miss­ing posi­tions. As a result I had no dri­ver. That was a bit scary while I had not been dri­ving for the last 20 years, not to men­tion fun­ny for a lot of my col­leagues when they saw the begin­ners sign in the win­dow. This proved to be a bless­ing in dis­guise, it offered a free­dom and inde­pen­dence to move like few oth­er dig­ni­taries. One year and twen­ty sev­en thou­sand kilo­me­tres lat­er I had the chance to go all over Roma­nia and talk with peo­ple in the sys­tem that no-one from the cen­tral body talked to and see the real­i­ty first hand in youth or stu­dents cen­tres, local rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies of the min­istry or youth camps.

Andrei Popes­cu at a vol­un­teer­ing gala in 2016

GT: So you got the feel­ing that you could move things ahead, to make a change?
Andrei: Def­i­nite­ly! How­ev­er, mind you, I am high­ly sub­jec­tive here. And it depends on the ref­er­ence point. Mov­ing some­thing in an unmov­able pub­lic sys­tem, even an inch for­ward, that could actu­al­ly be the change. Three exam­ples I would like to refer are:

  • First, open­ing to the pub­lic debate the pro­vi­sions of the Youth Law by going around the coun­try, hav­ing eight region­al con­sul­ta­tion meet­ings gath­er­ing more than 400 youth work­ers and youth orga­ni­za­tions or young peo­ple in less than a month, nego­ti­at­ing it fierce­ly with 11 oth­er min­istries, espe­cial­ly with the Min­istry of Finance
  • Sec­ond, tineRETEA – youth­NET — con­sist­ing of 120 youth work­ers that trans­lat­ed “struc­tured dia­logue” in com­mon lan­guage by orga­niz­ing 121 youth con­sul­ta­tion and train­ing events all over the coun­try engag­ing more than 3000 young peo­ple.
  • Third, launch­ing the NoHate Speech cam­paign in Roma­nia, which was ini­ti­at­ed and coor­di­nat­ed by the Coun­cil of Europe at inter­na­tion­al lev­el. It grew-up nice­ly and now it is a stand alone process with sev­er­al youth NGO that are orga­niz­ing peri­od­i­cal­ly NoHate events.

GT: Awe­some!
Andrei: Two more exam­ples, this time atti­tude chang­ing relat­ed:

  • First, “It can­not be done”, “It is impos­si­ble” and oth­er vari­a­tions were the most com­mon phras­es I heard from my col­leagues in the Min­istry when I start­ed. Remem­ber I men­tioned “patience” as a skill? Well, here is where I test­ed it the most while these phas­es were fol­lowed by me and my team with a very can­did “Why”, start­ing a time-con­sum­ing bat­tle with a lot of pro­ce­dur­al and legal argu­ments that most of the time proved either obso­lete, based on the wrong assump­tions or sim­ply not rel­e­vant to the case. I was filled with joy sev­er­al months lat­er when I heard these phas­es replaced with “Well… it is dif­fi­cult to do it, but it can be done”.
  • Sec­ond, cre­at­ing frame­works aim­ing to put in the same place rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the min­istry with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from youth orga­ni­za­tions and youth work­ers. Two par­al­lel worlds clash­ing based on con­flict­ing real­i­ties. It was a hard les­son for both par­ties, but an effec­tive one.
Andrei Popes­cu with Zsuzsan­na Buk­ta at the Euro­pean School 1 in Pécs, Hun­gary, in 2002.

GT: Pol­i­tics is seen as a field where many com­pro­mis­es need to be made. This is often seen as frus­trat­ing. How was your expe­ri­ence in this regard?
Andrei: To be frank I am not sure to be the right per­son answer­ing this ques­tion. I held indeed a polit­i­cal posi­tion, but I have nev­er seen myself as a politi­cian. The only thing that I cared about was youth pol­i­cy — and in this regard I was rather straight­for­ward to what I want or how I want it. Some­times I won, some­times I lost by cling­ing to this posi­tion.

GT: How long were you in gov­ern­ment alto­geth­er? From when to when?
Andrei: 1 year, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day pre­cise­ly! From the 9th of Decem­ber 2015 until 17th of Jan­u­ary 2017.

Andrei popes­cu with the Per­ma­nent Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Roma­nia to the EU in 2016.

GT: How did it hap­pen that you were appoint­ed in first place?
Andrei: In Novem­ber 2015 the gov­ern­ment in seat resigned after a nation­al out­cry fol­low­ing a trag­ic fire in the club Colec­tiv. Peo­ple blamed the endem­ic cor­rup­tion for cre­at­ing the con­di­tions that led to a tragedy in which 64 peo­ple nev­er made it out and many oth­ers sus­tained severe burns. With elec­tion due in one year, a tech­no­crat gov­ern­ment was asked to step up. Two of the col­lab­o­ra­tors I used to work with came up with the idea that I should be the new Min­is­ter of Youth and Sports. I laughed. How could I work in a min­istry that I used to blame for a lot of things? Oth­ers around me did not laugh. That made me take this more seri­ous­ly. They start­ed a cam­paign and a peti­tion signed by almost 2000 peo­ple and more than 100 youth orga­ni­za­tions. Some wrote let­ters to the pres­i­dent and the des­ig­nat­ed prime min­is­ter. It did not work out to make me min­is­ter, but at the begin­ning of Decem­ber I was being appoint­ed sec­re­tary of state, which is the deputy min­is­ter in Roman­ian admin­is­tra­tion.

GT: That’s an unbe­liev­able sto­ry…
Andrei (smiles): I must admit that I nev­er quite believed it to become true until it actu­al­ly hap­pened. All of that because some peo­ple believed in me despite all odds. So… it is basi­cal­ly their fault…

Andrei Popes­cu was main organ­is­er of the spring Ago­ra 2003 in Con­stan­ta, organ­ised by AEGEE-Bucuresti — on the pho­to with Dana Lun­gu and Olivi­er Genkin.

GT: How do we have to imag­ine an aver­age day in your gov­ern­ment life?
Andrei: Well… you must have a lot of imag­i­na­tion. Because there is no such thing as “aver­age life”. There were days when I left at five in the morn­ing on the road to get to the des­ti­na­tion late in the evening. Dri­ving “MTSi­ca” — the name I gave my car — served me well and took me all over the coun­try. On the way I used to stop by and vis­it­ed some col­leagues in their ter­ri­to­ry, or some youth camps. That helped me under­stand the real needs of the sec­tor. There were days when I was stuck in the office with one meet­ing after anoth­er. There were days when all we did was writ­ing doc­u­ments, giv­ing feed­back on oth­er doc­u­ments or prepar­ing for impor­tant posi­tions. There were days when I was out for events that we orga­nized or oth­er request­ed my pres­ence and the posi­tion of the min­istry. And there were many days when it was a bit of each and even more.

Andrei Popes­cu at a train­ing sim­u­la­tion at the Euro­pean School in Pécs in 2002.

GT: What were you doing before being in pol­i­tics?
Andrei: Twen­ty years ago I start­ed work­ing as a vol­un­teer. Ini­tial­ly in local activ­i­ties, soon after that I was involved at nation­al and Euro­pean lev­el. One year lat­er I had my first attempts of train­ings. Some suc­cess­ful, some impor­tant learn­ing lessons for future suc­cess­ful events. My dream was to be employed in an NGO. It nev­er hap­pened. On the con­trary, in the fol­low­ing year I found myself in the pecu­liar sit­u­a­tion of work­ing for “the oth­er part”, being hired in the Nation­al Agency deal­ing with what was called Socrates pro­gramme at the time and Eras­mus+ now. For sev­en years I lived a dou­ble life, pro­fes­sion­al­ly speak­ing. Dur­ing work­ing hours I was Grundtvig assis­tant man­ag­er and in the spare time vol­un­teer, train­er or debate coach in var­i­ous youth NGOs.
2006 came with a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge by tak­ing the coor­di­na­tion of the Youth in Action pro­gramme in Roma­nia. My dream to be employed in an NGO nev­er became real­i­ty but it was so much bet­ter, hav­ing now the back­ing of both aims and pro­gramme fund­ing to sup­port the youth NGOs. It took my team more than one year to rebuild the trust in the pro­gramme after being sus­pend­ed for sev­er­al months. Besides the dai­ly admin­is­tra­tive busi­ness we built a strong sup­port struc­ture until 2013, involv­ing a train­ing sys­tem with a pool of train­ers going all over the coun­try, an online plat­form for non-for­mal learn­ing and peer learn­ing com­mu­ni­ties for youth lead­ers, coach­es and men­tors.

Andrei Popes­cu at one of his NoHate events

GT: What are you doing right now?
Andrei: After the Min­istry adven­ture I decid­ed that it is time for anoth­er one. There­fore now I am a self-employed free lancer deliv­er­ing train­ing cours­es and facil­i­tat­ing events. As we speak I am in a plane tak­ing me to Por­to for an inter­na­tion­al event aim­ing to build social inclu­sion projects for young peo­ple. Next week I will be in Sibiu for anoth­er train­ing ded­i­cat­ed to inter­na­tion­al vol­un­teers that are now locat­ed in Roma­nia. Then… prob­a­bly a break.

GT: After your government’s term fin­ished, Roma­nia seems to have fall­en back in old pat­terns. The main par­ty in gov­ern­ment fights the DNA cor­rup­tion fight­ers of Roma­nia and with a cou­ple of legal changes they also want­ed to bring sen­tenced politi­cians back in pow­er. How could this hap­pen?
Andrei: Democ­ra­cy is a tricky thing, is it not? Of course peo­ple want bet­ter politi­cians and func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy. How­ev­er, some­times they get fed up. And when they get tired they do not show up to vote. Less than 40% of the cit­i­zens showed up in Decem­ber at the last elec­tion. “If you think democ­ra­cy is expen­sive, try to see how much the lack of it costs!”, said once Churchill. And now we pay the bill.

The Spring Ago­ra Con­stan­ta was sup­posed to take place in Bucharest, but had to be moved to Con­stan­ta on two-week notice.

GT: Don’t peo­ple want bet­ter politi­cians and a tru­ly func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy?
Andrei: Truth being said, the elec­tion cam­paign was vir­tu­al­ly non-exis­tent and con­sist­ed more in attack­ing the adver­sary rather than com­ing up with poli­cies and ideas. Truth being said, many peo­ple do not care about ideas and do not take the time to analyse them. Truth being said, the par­ties that are now in the oppo­si­tion did not come with an alter­na­tive that was cred­i­ble. So… a lethal com­bi­na­tion in which we all should take respon­si­bil­i­ty. Includ­ing the present Gov­ern­ment as well as the pre­vi­ous one in which I was part.

GT: Ten­t­hou­sands of peo­ple have been demon­strat­ing against your suc­ces­sors, the cur­rent gov­ern­ment in the past cou­ple of months. How suc­cess­ful is the fight?
Andrei: Yes, indeed, many peo­ple react­ed when a gov­ern­men­tal bill was pro­posed. This bill basi­cal­ly pro­posed to erase penal­ties for sev­er­al crimes includ­ing cor­rup­tion-relat­ed ones. Ten days lat­er and sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple in the streets the bill was with­drawn. So yes, you may say that this was suc­cess­ful. How­ev­er this is just an impor­tant “bat­tle” but not the “war” against cor­rup­tion that will con­tin­ue for a long time. I believe in a more impor­tant and tru­ly suc­cess­ful inter­est­ing side effect of the anti-cor­rup­tion protests in Roma­nia: the aware­ness that they entered in the pub­lic men­tal­i­ty as a peace­ful form of pres­sur­ing the author­i­ties. It is impres­sive con­sid­er­ing that the protests took place for more than one month with num­ber of cit­i­zens vary­ing from few thou­sands to a peak of more than half a mil­lion cit­i­zens in 40 dif­fer­ent cities.

Andrei Popes­cu with his min­is­te­r­i­al staff.

GT: Were you on the streets, too?
Andrei: Of course. For the five days I was in the street togeth­er with a group of drum­mers we shout­ed exclu­sive­ly NoHate mes­sages. There were groups of pro­test­ers com­ing to our group ask­ing us to sup­port them in send­ing some of their mes­sages. If they implied hate or stereo­typ­ing we respect­ful­ly but firm­ly declined to sup­port them. It was amaz­ing to see their reac­tion. With one excep­tion every­one else accept­ed imme­di­ate­ly our right to refuse to sup­port them and a lot of them actu­al­ly joined us! Dur­ing the protests I post­ed sev­er­al NoHate mes­sages on my Face­book page with top­ics vary­ing from how to behave dur­ing a protest in order to keep it peace­ful and non-vio­lent to warn­ings relat­ed to mes­sages that might put an anath­e­ma over an entire group of peo­ple — and the impor­tance to focus on what mat­ters and brings us togeth­er, not on what divide us.

Andrei Popes­cu at the Euro­pean Coun­cil of Youth Min­istries in Novem­ber 2016

GT: How can Roma­nia become more demo­c­ra­t­ic? Do you need bet­ter politi­cians? Is a change of mind­set of the pop­u­la­tion nec­es­sary so that they don’t just fol­low the par­ty with the biggest promis­es?
Andrei: Yes to the politi­cians. Yes to the mind­set chang­ing. And more. Politi­cians are, after all, mir­ror­ing the soci­ety. Like it or not. So if we want respon­si­ble politi­cians we need to equal­ly take respon­si­bil­i­ty as cit­i­zens. Protest­ing makes a lot of sense. But it is it ulti­mate­ly a tool after using all the oth­ers. The fun­da­ment is to show up to vote and actu­al­ly vote informed. Then fol­low­ing are the acts of the politi­cians, being active­ly involved in debates, propos­ing solu­tions, sign­ing peti­tions when need­ed… in short: being involved in the com­mu­ni­ty for real. And we should not only look to the Par­lia­ment, but start with the local politi­cians that are eas­i­er to reach and nor­mal­ly have the pow­er to affect our dai­ly life more for bet­ter or worse. We should be crit­i­cal, but informed and bal­anced.

GT: What can young peo­ple do? How can they con­tribute to the nec­es­sary change?
Andrei: The prob­lems of young peo­ple are not fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent than the prob­lems of the soci­ety. How­ev­er, they feel the bur­den more acute in many cas­es. There­fore I think that you peo­ple need to do exact­ly what is expect­ed to be done by any cit­i­zen. Plus, to vol­un­teer more and get more involved in youth activ­i­ties and non-for­mal learn­ing.

GT: Any­thing you would like to add?
Andrei: Thank you for this oppor­tu­ni­ty. AEGEE was tru­ly a school of life for me and helped me under­stand the world bet­ter. Going inter­na­tion­al was not just some­thing kool to do, but the right thing to under­stand and respect those around me.

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