Romania’s luddites push back against automation

Romania’s IT sector thrives, but among the general population – and some of its politicians – there is a growing fear of anything digital.

It was with great fanfare that early in March Romania’s government unveiled Ion, a supposedly artificial intelligence (AI)-powered adviser that would offer the country’s prime minister, Nicolae Ciucă, updates on what Romanians were thinking. 

Developed by Romanian researchers, Ion’s main task, the government claimed, would be to scan social networks to inform the government “in real time of Romanians’ proposals and wishes”. 

Ciucă enthusiastically called Ion “an international first”, describing the tool as “the first government adviser to use artificial intelligence”. 

It has since come to light that Ion may not be as intelligent as first claimed, following revelations that the launch event – at which Ion ‘spoke’ with Ciucă – had been pre-recorded and followed a carefully written script. 

Undeterred, the Romanian government is persisting with Ion. On March 13, Minister of Research, Innovation and Digitalisation Sebastian Burduja announced that he would be touring the country with Ion to demonstrate its benefits. 

“[Ion’s] purpose right now is to collect information. In the future, once it has enough information, it will be able to offer solutions,” he says. “Expectations are perhaps too high right now: people expect it to be a tool as complex as one costing billions, such as ChatGPT. It’s not there, yet.” 

Who’s afraid of a little automation? 

Burduja might find his time better spent demonstrating the benefits of automation and digitalisation to MPs in his own governing coalition, some of whom have pushed back against a recent announcement by French retailer Auchan that it plans to replace all cashiers with self-checkouts in its Romanian stores by 2025. The firm has said that cashiers will be redeployed elsewhere in its stores. 

On March 6, Gabriel Zetea, the vice-president of the Social Democrats (PSD), who share power with Burduja’s National Liberal party (PNL), said that he was working on legislation to introduce employment taxes for self-checkouts. 

“We are talking with our social partners, as well as retailers, to protect the purchasing power of Romanian consumers,” he said, adding that lower costs for retailers should be reflected in lower prices. 

While Zetea’s statements are evidence that the government is not short of technophobes, leading the charge against automation has been the fiercely nationalist opposition party, the Romanian Unity Alliance, known by its Romanian acronym, AUR. 

The party’s leader, George Simion, has claimed that Auchan’s plans will transform Romanian consumers into “unpaid corporate employees”, given that they will have to scan their own produce. He has called for a boycott of Auchan’s stores, telling Romanians to “buy only from Romanians and from shops which offer Romanians jobs”. 

“Auchan, like other retailers, makes enough profit to afford to pay its employees,” he adds. “The explanation that no checkout staff will be fired, and that they will be reemployed elsewhere is a smoke screen, a joke. Unless we take a stand, in two to three years thousands of people will lose their jobs.” 

A far better reason for boycotting Auchan – suggests another opposition party, the Save Romania Union (USR) – is its ongoing refusal to divest itself of its Russian business despite Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

“In the end everyone is happy. This is a highly profitable political topic for the upcoming electoral year,” says Claudia Postelnicescu, a Romanian lawyer and political consultant, who also points out that supermarket staff are so poorly paid, “at least in Romania”, that their replacement “will not mean immediate cuts in expenditure”.

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Romania lags behind 

Quite what luddites such as Simion would make of Polish retailer Żabka’s Nano stores is anyone’s guess. The autonomous Nano outlets combine a physical and digital store allowing for quick shopping without checkout staff, queues, and cash. The first Żabka Nano store was opened in June 2021 in Poznań, and there are currently more than 50 across Europe, making it the largest chain of autonomous stores on the continent. 

The stores are integrated with Żabka’s smartphone app, Żappka; before entering a store, the application generates a one-time QR code that facilitates access. Using AI, cameras installed in the store recognise products removed from the shelves and charge the appropriate amount either to a payment card attached to Żappka or to a bank card directly. 

Tomasz Blicharski, managing director of Żabka Future, said when presenting the concept at the retail event NRF 2023 in New York in January that, “thanks to our concept, Warsaw has become the world capital of autonomous stores.” 

Bucharest is unlikely to be in a position to make such a claim anytime soon. 

While Simion’s scaremongering can be easily dismissed as the rantings of a nationalist never shy to pick up on populist sentiment, there is much electoral capital to be made from any attempt at automation in a country that lags far behind the rest of Europe in adopting innovative, digital solutions – not least in the public sector. 

Indeed, while Romania’s IT sector is thriving (ANIS, which represents the sector, claims it could be worth 10 per cent of GDP by 2025) and its broadband speeds amongst the world’s fastest, the pace of public sector digitalisation is slow. Few public services are available online, and those that are merely replicate offline processes.  

Romania offers no government-issued digital ID – a pilot scheme has been running in some towns for almost two years, but nationwide roll-out has been delayed until at least later in 2023. Procuring any official documentation – be it a passport, ID card, driving license – usually requires a long wait in a long queue. 

Maybe that’s just how Romanians want it.  

According to Eurostat, the country has the lowest level of overall digital skills – such as reading online news sites, sending instant messages, using word processing software or managing personal data access – among the general population, behind neighbouring Bulgaria.

Nevertheless, the digitalisation of retail services will become a reality regardless of our empathy for disposable workers, says Postelnicescu.

“The downside of accelerated digitalisation is the impact it has on the older people, who are not familiar with technology, and many of them do not even have a credit or debit card, which makes it impossible to use the self-service machines.

“I am thinking mostly of elderly people who are alone and isolated, with no young generation around to help them. Many young Romanians emigrated, and lots of our small towns are depopulated and behind with technology. At the same time, Romania is a leading hub in technology and innovation, so overall I think this was a pseudo-scandal, but with huge political potential to speculate.”

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