Romania Is Quietly Doing Great
The country lost a sixth of its population to emigration after 1990. Now, thanks to a thriving economy, young Romanians are coming back.
When you tell Romanians you are visiting, their advice is unanimous: “Visit the rustic beauty of Transylvania, avoid the unsightly Bucharest.” Ignoring this counsel, I embarked on a month-long sojourn in Bucharest, wandering its streets in a sort of urban exploration, uncovering the unpolished truths beneath its surface. It’s a dirty, ugly city, they said. Perfect.
My arrival in Bucharest was marked by an almost ritualistic initiation: the airport cab driver ripped me off. This didn’t make me mad, instead I felt like I was finally part of the club, the screwed-by-a-cabbie-in-Eastern-Europe club. Admittedly, my own weariness and laziness made me an easy mark. I thought I was savvy, keeping an eye on the meter, but these drivers have a hidden button to jack up the meter they press when you are not looking. Lesson learned: If you must travel the roads of Bucharest—and Bucharest recently surpassed London as the EU city with the worst traffic—always take an Uber.
My Airbnb was one floor above an establishment whose nature was thinly veiled by a sign declaring, “THIS IS NOT A BROTHEL.” Walking up the stairwell, my path often crossed with young women bearing the weight of sorrow in their eyes and men with a spring in their step. The stark contrast of these encounters, a daily reminder of the moral erosion lurking in the city’s underbelly, was sad in a way that sticks to your soul.
The city is like some kind of mad experiment where communist ghosts and capitalist dreams crashed into each other and decided to coexist. An eclectic mix of Latin warmth, Ottoman tradition, Balkan fire, and Slavic cool is manifest in its architecture. They used to call it “Paris on the Danube” because of grand French-inspired edifices like the Arcul de Triumf, a nod to the iconic Arc de Triomphe, but that nickname no longer sticks after the city’s urban fabric was forever scarred by the cataclysms of World War II. Heavily bombed first by the Allies and then, after Romania switched sides, by the Germans, Bucharest lost many historical buildings and structures.
The city’s landscape was then further transformed under the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s communist dictator from 1965 to 1989, who ripped out the heart of the city by bulldozing large swaths to realize his utilitarian vision. Parisian grandeur was replaced with grey, grim, dystopian, decaying, crumbling “commie blocks” that look like they’re rotting away. Those things are everywhere, like leprosy eating away at the city, graffiti-laden relics of a city that’s seen too much.
The most emblematic legacy of Ceaușescu’s rule is the colossal Parliament building, the world’s heaviest building, weighing approximately 4,098,500,000 kilograms. In terms of size among administrative buildings, it is second only to the Pentagon. It bankrupted the country to build it. The locals have bestowed upon it the sardonic nickname “Ceaușescima,” a portmanteau of Ceaușescu’s name and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. According to a survey by Romania’s School for Political Studies, this building is paradoxically regarded by locals as simultaneously the most beautiful and the ugliest structure in the city.
In 1989, the toppling of Ceaușescu’s regime unleashed a maelstrom of revolution in Bucharest that once again destroyed much of the city. My scammer cab driver, who had been a soldier during that revolution, confided in me his act of rebellion: refusing to fire upon the protesters when ordered to do so, a memory he cherishes with a sense of honor. Following the revolution, the city further decayed, but now things are changing. The passage of time (and billions of dollars from the EU) has ushered in a renaissance of regeneration, energy, and progress, reshaping it into a destination of dark allure and electric modernity.
The modernity of Bucharest is somewhat tainted by an overabundance of trivial, vapid, and tacky entertainment. The city is littered with bars, strip clubs, brothels, casinos, and gambling hubs, making it a haven for inexpensive European bachelor parties. This hedonistic façade coexists bizarrely with an abundance of witches, tarot card readers, and fortune tellers. Donald Dunham, an American diplomat stationed in Bucharest in 1948, noted of Romanians, “They are superstitious but religious at the same time.” While 96.5 percent of Romanians believe in God and 84.4 percent believe in saints, an astonishing 60 percent also read their horoscope, even though canon law of the Orthodox Church forbids astrology. In 2011, lawmakers backed down from legislation to tax witches out of fears that they would be cursed
Seemingly the only aspect of the city not to suffer from irrational contrasts is its demographics: Romania belongs to Romanians. In London, you’ll see more Pakistanis than British; Rome is teeming with hordes of selfie-stick-toting tourists. In Bucharest, I didn’t see a single African, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese person the entire month. Ethnic Romanians are 97 percent of the city’s population; 2 percent are Gypsy, Jewish, Turkish, German, or Hungarian; the remaining 1 percent belong to the rest of the world. Because of its homogeneity, the sense of safety in the city is palpable: Bucharest is ranked the 67th safest city in the entire world. There are virtually no pickpockets. With no tourists to prey on, why would there be? The murder rate of 1.3 per 100,000 people is on par with France, Sweden, and Finland, compared to a murder rate of 6.35 in the United States, whose peer countries include Zambia, Yemen, and Uganda.
This modern murder rate is a mere third of where it stood 30 years ago following the fall of communism, which coincides with a remarkable 732 percent surge in GDP per capita. This positive shift has begun to counteract the trend of outmigration that saw Romania’s population shrink by 14 percent during the same span, a trend driven more by emigration than declining birth rates. Approximately 3.4 million Romanians emigrated in the ten years following the country's entry into the EU. The peak of this exodus was in 2008, when 7.3 out of every 1,000 citizens left, but in 2024 the outmigration rate has dramatically decreased to just 0.7 per 1,000, signaling a significant turnaround.
The profession that was perhaps hit most by this wave of emigration was medical doctors. With the allure of higher salaries and more opportunities in Western Europe, their exodus was further exacerbated by the 2010 austerity measures that slashed public sector salaries by 25 percent. In 2020 alone, 2,173 Romanian doctors requested certificates of conformity to practice abroad, equating to nearly one doctor leaving every four hours.
Bogdan Enache, a millennial cardiologist practicing in Monaco for the last seven years, returned to Romania in 2024 to establish a practice in his hometown of Timisoara. “Mostly for the sake of my family, but in my days of optimism also with a thought that I can improve things here,” he tells me. “I have some reasons to believe that the tide is turning for Romania.”
“First and foremost, the economy has been growing. In the last ten years, the average net income has tripled,” says Dr. Enache. “And check out the fertility rates around Europe since 2000: Romania has gone from 1.3 to 1.8, which is the opposite trend of the rest of the EU, it doesn’t even seem close to others.”
Do Romanians resent the past two decades of mass emigration? “I don’t think there is resentment on a public/societal scale. I think people are still proud when their children go abroad (especially true for education),” says Dr. Enache. However, “there is a whole generation of children, sadly but predictably from lower income backgrounds, whose parents went to work in Europe and left their small children to be raised by their grandparents. They’d send money back and come to visit a couple of weeks per year. There have been some journalistic pieces about this phenomenon.”
In 2018, the Romanian government increased the salaries of medical personnel by up to 287 percent depending on speciality. Did that play a significant role in Dr. Enache’s return?
“Although not a key factor—I’m well aware I’ll be getting a pay cut—it is reassuring to know that I won’t be coming back to frustratingly low wages insufficient for decent living. The costs of daily life are much lower in Romania, so 1000 EUR gets you much further than 1000 EUR in Monaco,” says Dr. Enache. “The aspects most commonly cited by my colleagues [who emigrate] are wages, access to jobs, and an environment with the right infrastructure and equipment necessary to do the thing you’ve been trained for.”
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The trend of emigration is reversing. Is it because Romania is more prosperous, or did people get disillusioned with the west and decide it’s not the wonderful golden land they imagined and thus not worth moving to?
“Definitely a bit of both. I think it’s also the case that people moving to another country find out that there’s no such thing as a perfect country and that every place has tradeoffs,” he says. “The cultural, economic, and developmental gap between Romania and ‘the West’ seems much much smaller nowadays than twenty or thirty years ago.”
“In some countries, such as France or the UK, the younger generations feel worse off than their parents or grandparents, whereas in other places, Romania, Poland, Czechia, our parents and grandparents had it so bad that it’s easier for our generation to feel positive progress.”