The Romanian Dream is Now Behind Bars
George “Gigi” Becali is one of Romania’s most recognisable public figures. He was active as a politician for over decade and owns Steaua Bucharest, the country’s top football club.
Above all, he is known for his extravagant lifestyle, inflammatory statements and the anti-fraud agencies’ investigations into his fortune.
Recently, Becali was sentenced to three years in prison for an illegal exchange of farmland with the Romanian Army. Few people believed that he would end up behind bars, although the biggest surprise was the public’s reaction to the news when he finally did go to jail. Gigi Becali’s arrest led to a significant movement of support, visible especially on social media. The “Free Gigi Becali” Facebook page has over 73,000 followers, while “Free Gigi” has 41,000. Fans posted an online petition requesting the businessman be released which raised over 6,500 signatures. This is both linked to his personality and charitable actions, as well as a general belief among Romanians that the authorities are ignoring “bigger fish”.
Becali’s rise and hubris
As with the most fascinating success stories and greatest tragedies, Gigi Becali started from scratch and built his way up from the bottom. As a poor shepherd, who received no formal education, Becali made an impressive fortune after an infamous exchange of farmland with the Army. He gave them a plot in Stefanestii de Jos, a village near Bucharest, and received a plot in Northern Bucharest in return. Shortly after, real estate prices skyrocketed in the capital, and Becali was able to sell this land to companies who built residential neighbourhoods, making millions.
Anti-corruption prosecutors started looking into the exchange in 2006, and it was proved that Becali didn’t own the land he offered to the Romanian Army until after the deal was made. The Army, for their part, was not authorised to sell the North Bucharest land, as it was claimed by its former owners in court.
Despite the dubious origins of Becali’s fortune, he has constantly attracted the media and the public’s attention with supposed charitable acts. In 2005, after massive floods around the whole country, Becali donated four million dollars to rebuild a village in Eastern Romania. His impressive gesture came at a cost: he remained the legal owner of the houses he helped restore.
A fervent Orthodox Christian, he has funded the construction of several churches. In 2005 he commissioned a painting inspired by Da Vinci’s Last Supper, in which he is portrayed as Jesus, with the players of Steaua Bucharest as the disciples. He frequently described himself as the Warrior of Light, inspired by one of Paolo Coelho’s books, and likes to remind people how much he has given back to his country, through charity and the success of Steaua Bucharest, creating a Robin Hood-like aura for himself.
What the people say
Considering the outcry of support his has received on Facebook, the strategy seems to have worked. “He has built so many houses for people who lost their homes – does he really deserve this?” the description of the “Free Gigi Becali” page reads. While one might struggle to make sense of many grammatically incorrect postings, Becali’s fans make two main points.
First: “He is the only politician who has done something for the people and for Romanian sports.” While he may have helped some people in need – mostly to show off his generosity – and poured a lot of money into Steaua Bucharest’s pockets, it is peculiar to claim that this erases any obligation to abide by the law. Another argument in favour of Becali’s release is: “There are others who should be sentenced and it is because of them that Romanians suffer.”
It may be true that Becali alone isn’t responsible for the political corruption in Romania, but this idea that the justice system should only focus on convicting prime ministers and presidents, not extravagant sport financiers, shows a problem in mentality. It is often forgotten that in 2009, he was arrested for illegally holding three people against their will because he thought that they had stolen his car.
Still, Romanians relate to Gigi Becali because he incorporates the Eastern European version of the American Dream: the clever, God-fearing shepherd tricked the corrupt state and became rich. He gave back to the poor and covered his mansion in gold. He likes football. He talks like a simple person and isn’t afraid to put anyone in their place.
Becali’s dark side
Despite his great financial success, Becali has maintained his man-of-the-people personality, often through demonstrating populist and intolerant views. He is vocally anti-LGBT and famously said Steaua Bucharest would never employ a gay footballer. He also instigated people against the Hungarian minorities in Romania and believes women “have no more value” after giving birth.
Unfortunately, these views seem to fit in with a broader vein of intolerance within the country, and rather than removing the shine from his success story, have enhanced his man-of-the-people status. A 2012 study by the National Anti-Discrimination Council in Romania showed that 73 per cent of the population would be bothered if a family member was a homosexual. Romania is the fifth most discriminatory country towards homosexuals in the European Union, according to the Agency for Fundamental Rights. A Soros Foundation study in 2011 also showed that Romanians are extremely conservative when it comes to abortion, sexual orientation, divorce and capital punishment. These views all reflect well on Becali’s outspoken politics.
Although it is true that some complain about the “Becalising” of the country (a term used by the media to point out the dropping level of education and integrity among Romanians), the businessman’s rise to the top has been viewed favourably by many people. As long as high-level corruption stalls Romania’s economic recovery, intolerant views remain broadly mainstream, and youngsters forgo education to make quick money, people such as Gigi Becali will continue getting fan-mail – even from behind bars.
Ioana Burtea is a writer with Europe & Me magazine. As a journalism graduate currently based in London, she studies creative writing and is carrying out research for her first non-fiction book. Ioana also worked as a reporter for Mediafax News Agency in Bucharest for almost four years, covering the Ministry of Administration and Interior.