Escaping the Earthquake, Romanians Await Other Miracles

Having escaped the "devastating earthquake", Romanians have resumed their love affair with television gambling, hoping for a miracle win to deliver them from poverty.

Escaping the Earthquake, Romanians Await Other Miracles

Having escaped the "devastating earthquake", Romanians have resumed their love affair with television gambling, hoping for a miracle win to deliver them from poverty.

In Romania the first days of the new millennium were dominated by discussion of one thing--the earthquake, expected to measure 7 degrees on the Richter scale and due to hit the country on January 15. The question: "Will it come or not?" was on everybody's lips.

The widespread alarm was sparked by "seismologist", Vergil Hancu.

Hancu says he is an associate professor at a university in the United States and to have invented a machine able to predict the exact date of an earthquake. Many Romanians believed his prediction that an earthquake would strike Romania on January 15. Some even started to stockpile water and food, while others sought a safe place to hide.

Priests and fortune-tellers offered advice and solutions on how to survive the impending disaster. One yoga group called on Romanians to pray for 45 minutes every evening until the end of January to prevent the "devastating earthquake". One insurance company launched "a promotional offer for the earthquake".

Officials in several cities, including the capital Bucharest, started to make preparations just in case. Emergency planning meetings were convened to discuss what needed to be done in a disaster situation. Plans were made to erect tents in public parks, despite the freezing winter temperatures.

The fact that the authorities seemed to be acting on Hancu's prediction heightened public anxiety. Moreover, daily media coverage fuelled the growing hysteria, despite disclaimers that Hancu's predictions were not being taken seriously.

Romanian seismologists tried to calm the situation, insisting that a quake of above 7 on the Richter scale was almost impossible at the present time, but that one is expected at some time in the next five years.

Hancu remained adamant to the end. "There will be an earthquake, it is inevitable", he said in an interview broadcast on all television stations on January 14. "If it does not happen tomorrow, then it will surely take place shortly".

But the "most feared day of the year"--as some media dubbed it--passed without incident. Romanians were thus able to return to their main weekend preoccupation--bingo.

Queues form every day throughout Romania as people wait for hours to buy their bingo tickets, "investing" what little money they have in gambling. On Sunday evening viewers gather round the television, praying and hoping their numbers come up.

Bingo has proved a huge draw on Romanian television. First to exploit the phenomenon was Antena 1, the most important privately owned television station in Romania. Together with a Bucharest bingo club, Antena 1 broadcasts a weekly show, which attracts the interest and money of millions of Romanians.

On Christmas day last year the show paid out Romania's biggest ever prize of $1 million to a young family from a town in eastern Romania, the country's poorest region.

Another important television station PRO TV, owned mainly by a US company, seeing the popularity enjoyed by Antena 1, launched a similar show. Though initially overshadowed, PRO TV's game show has gradually attracted a large following as well.

In response, Romania's public broadcaster, Televiziunea Romana (TVR) launched its own version of the bingo game show on January 8 and with big prizes on offer Romanians scrambled for tickets.

Threatened by the popularity of television bingo, the Romanian Lottery counter attacked. Since two special lottery draws on New Year's eve failed to find a winner, a rollover jackpot of 19 billion Lei ($1.05 million) was at stake, provoking hysteria among players who besieged lottery agencies all week.

"I try my luck every week," said Sorin Florea, a 30-year-old school teacher. "This is my only chance to get some money to buy a house for myself and for my family." Florea earns less than $125 a month. The average price of a two room apartment on the outskirts of Bucharest is around $10,000.

Gambling hysteria is not new to Romania, a country which has been shaken in recent years by several failed pyramid schemes. After ten years of largely unsuccessful economic reforms, many Romanians have grown weary and lost hope that things will improve. Millions struggle by on incomes of around $3 a day.

Many Romanians say they feel a sense of hopelessness and few have faith in organisations, such as political parties and trade unions, promising to make things better. An opinion poll conducted last November showed that more than 75 per cent of Romanians believe the country is being led "in the wrong direction" by its political leaders. Hence ever increasing numbers clutching at straws waiting for a miracle.

Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.

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