BUCHAREST, Romania – Was a top contender for the Romanian presidency zapped out of the race by a shadowy parapsychologist enlisted by his rival?
The claim might be dismissed as preposterous in most other EU countries. But here in Romania, home of Dracula and other occult traditions, Mircea Geoana's assertion that a "negative energy attack" led to his narrow loss to re-elected President Traian Basescu has been the talk of the nation.
"The Evil Witch defeated Geoana," wrote the daily Evenimentul Zilei in a recent commentary typical of the buzz. "Romanian politicians really believe that magic forces can make you president or can destroy you.
"May the Force be with us!"
Like most former Soviet bloc nations, Romania is used to rough and tumble politics and the first claims and counterclaims after Basescu's narrow Dec. 6 runoff victory were nothing out of the ordinary, with Geoana's people complaining of massive fraud.
Then came the startling allegation: Geoana, in media interviews last week, asserted he was targeted by waves of negative energy during a key debate just before the runoff that was won by Basescu.
"People who were working for Basescu in this domain were present to the right of the camera," Geoana told Antena 3 Television. His wife, Mihaela said Geoana "was very badly attacked, he couldn't concentrate."
At first Romanians mocked their ex-foreign minister saying he was a bad loser. Basescu himself jokingly dismissed the allegations. But the recent publication of photos showing well-known parapsychologist Aliodor Manolea close to Basescu during the campaign has caused Romanians to wonder whether the president really did put a hex on his rival.
The photos show Manolea, a slightly built, bearded man with a round face and cropped receding hair, walking yards behind Basescu ahead of the debate. Manolea's specialties include deep mind control, clairvoyance and hypnotic trance, according to the Romanian Association of Transpersonal Psychology.
For weeks, Basescu's office declined to comment on Manolea, with officials referring inquiries to the Liberal Democratic Party that supported the president. Officials there gave evasive answers — but not outright denials.
In comments published Friday, Basescu spokesman Sever Voinescu said he knew Manolea but that the parapschycologist did not take part in campaign staff meetings. Voinescu also said he did not discuss Manolea with Basescu.
"I am not clear what this person was doing next to President Basescu," he told the daily Cotidianul.
Manoela's alleged role in the elections evokes age-old Balkan rituals where the evil eye, witch doctors and other mysterious forces were used to launch mystic energy attacks on opponents and sap hapless victims of their vital strength.
While such superstitions are now usually found only in the most backward rural pockets of the Balkans, belief in the paranormal spawned some unusual practices up to recent times.
Former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was so terrified of even traditional psychologists he feared were a threat to communism that he abolished psychology departments across the country and banned the word from the official dictionary.
In 1982, he staged a crackdown against people who were allegedly practicing transcendental meditation, purging the interior ministry and dismissing scores of officials who were allegedly involved, including a deputy interior minister.
In neighboring Serbia, Col. Ljubodrag Stojadinovic, a former army spokesman, was discharged after divulging that the military had a parapsychology unit in the 1990s under ex-President Slobodan Milosevic that launched psychic attacks on the United States and other enemies.
"Group 69," which Stojadinovic said included publicly known fortune tellers and witches, claimed to have inflicted "heavy losses" against the enemy with its tactics, including downing aircraft. He said one of the group's main tasks was to capture at least one senior "enemy of the Serbs" — the U.S. president, for instance.
Neither the Serbian government nor the military has issued a denial of Stojadinovic's claims.
Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was said to have believed in witchcraft and actively participated in paranormal activities. Now on trial for at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, he was arrested in July 2008 in Belgrade disguised as a New Age guru.
To the south, former Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski employed a parapsychologist and medium known simply as Mina, as an official Cabinet adviser. Some Macedonians — who widely consult fortune tellers and astrologists — believe Mina helped Georgievski avoid full-blown civil war between Slavic Macedonians and the nation's ethnic Albanians.
"It is not strange in Macedonia for people to have their alternative personal advisers," said Mirjna Stojanovska, a 28-year-old German language teacher. "It is part of our mentality and culture to call upon a higher power to help people cope with the problems in life."
In a further twist to Romania's presidential intrigue, photos reveal Manolea amid Geoana's entourage during a 2007 electoral campaign, suggesting the clairvoyant may have been inclined to offer his services to anyone willing to pay the fee.
There has been no comment from Geoana, who in recent days has moved to distance himself from the topic in an attempt to limit dents to his credibility. An e-mail to the reclusive parapsychologist was not answered.
Reputed Romanian psychologist Aurora Liiceanu says the region remains a fertile breeding ground for such superstitions even while seeming to adopted an outward veneer of cynicism more in keeping with the rest of Europe.
"This society is inclined to the irrational; it is a culture of superstitious people," said Liiceanu. "Luck has a great role here, it is a force.
"Luck and destiny."