A few years ago, during the tenure of the bribe-loving Mayor of Cluj (the same who had even the Dabuleni melons-salesmen pay contributions and payed nightly visits to load his truck with 100 kilos of melons), a few friends told me how the electrician would ask them for a bribe during a safety check on their electricity counter. The man was willing to give them the counter back, so it will add a lower energy amount in its totals, his argument being that “everyone on Piezișă does that”. The Piezișă Street in Cluj is, practically, in the middle of the Hasdeu student campus and near every house there is a small business – dozens of bars, market shops, copying firms and so forth. I didn’t have time then to check the information provided, but statistics from that period placed Romania at the top of European rankings on energy theft. As time went by, things did not change very much, news about catching a few energy thieves keep showing up almost weekly, and the crimes that are detected and sanctioned represent just a small share of the total amount that it is being stolen. I asked myself then how is it possible to steal at such grand scale. Even if not every business venture on the Piezișă street would accept for 30 or 50 euro to make a small “saving” of another few hundred euro, the nonchalance with which that electrician demanded a bribe from me indicated a very common practice, most probably, the man expected the people he was asking for a bribe to be up to date with the rules of this sort of business. What intrigued me was that a robbery at such a grand scale attracted no greater attention than that of the electrician that would read the energy counters (when you add dozens of economic actors from a street, the differences between the amount of delivered energy and the energy that is actually fiscally accounted for become indeed significant and it’s impossible for them to just go by unnoticed). To have some kind of leverage over the economic actors (because a compromise, a little bribe, will naturally attract other compromises and dependency), the explanation was that he either shared the bribe with his bosses or this was a generally tolerated behaviour. I’m mostly leaning towards the second hypothesis, that the bribe was not just for getting the counter back, it was also intended to convince the city hall inspectors and police officers from the respective sector to turn a blind eye to the counter’s functioning hours (because two or three hours of extra monetary gains after a show are greater than the bribe given for turning a blind eye to the counter’s time limit), there were bribes given for functioning permits even if the pubs or the clubs were far from meeting the hygiene or safety norms and one bribe would also solve the problem of the products that were sold, this way there would be no paper trail. And when a more “stubborn” person showed up, someone that refused to enter the dependency and bribery game, and he would be faced with constant inspections, with fines for every minute that exceeded the schedule, for a tea bag or 5 grams of coffee that did not add up with the receipts, for the work of a student whose papers were already sent to the Labour Office, but the Office did not register that person yet… And in this way the rebel would either become part of the system, or he had to exit the market for those who were willing to conform.
Do you recognize in all these examples the causes of the Colectiv tragedy? Obtaining a functioning permit for a place that hosts hundreds of people at an event that respects all the prevention and emergency norms in case of a fire is a diabolical operation. Building an extra exit in case of an emergency costs a bit more than giving a bribe and getting the permit, a document which, in the end, absolves you and the one who makes or should be making all the security checks (unclear if actual controls were made, all we know is the documents were “alright”) of responsibility. And not just because it’s cheaper, but you also avoid the risk of dealing with every imaginable inspection if you’re stubborn and try to be the one who plays fair. Because if you want to have an honest business it’s a sign for some people that you’re not willing to pay bribes. And then how are they going to be able to pay for their vacations, their children’s clothes, the rent on their apartment or the check-up on their car, how will they be able to pay the various fees to their boss and the political party so they can preserve their position in the food chain that depends on that bribe so much?
Please don’t think that all this aims to absolve from guilt those who accept to run their businesses in this manner. No one is forcing you to turn a profit if you’re not capable to make a business that will bring that profit legally and without endangering the lives of your clients (this goes not only for small businesses, but for big businesses too, those who try to wash their hands with the slogan “this is the only way you can do business in a corrupt country”). If these tragedies are to never happen again, we need to completely reform the system. Starting from the very top, not the bottom (because at the bottom, if you fire or even jail some minor accountants or field inspectors, there will always be others out there who are desperate enough to do everything their predecessors did – because hunger and the lack of a job represent concrete and actual problems, the eventuality of prison is just a possibility, depending on luck).
The Colectiv tragedy hurts and shocks because of its magnitude, but the feeling of suffocation in which Romanian society finds itself, down to the lowest level, is generating unseen tragedies. The biggest robbery schemes – the ones about which those who are caught innocently ask when they are brought in front of the Parliament, prosecutors and judges “Why me? Since everyone does the same thing?” – that rob millions and billions of euros from the health sector, education, research, culture, infrastructure and even the salaries of the inspectors and accountants who try to justify their corruption by crying that their salaries are too small. This is how an EU member country’s medical system lacks the capacity to offer emergency accommodation to two hundred individuals (God forbid, what will happen in the case of a cataclysm?). This is why there always will be a mass of people at the margins of despair, willing to make compromises that endanger not just their own liberty, but also the lives of others. And they don’t even need to be in a desperate situation, it could just be a perfidious social pressure: “wait a second, so I’m dumber than that guy who went on vacation in Dubai, who bought himself a 4×4 car and is sending his kids to study abroad, because I know that guy, he was my colleague, and he was the stupidest one in the class…”. There are dots that connect with each other in the unhappiest way possible. We have come to live our lives on the knife’s edge. Two days ago, our new borns were burned alive in a maternity, yesterday a police escort lost his life because a minister was in a hurry to get home, today a few dozen youngsters die in a club fire. Not to mention the accidents occurring on Romanian roads because of deplorable infrastructure or the deaths inside our hospitals caused by the lack of equipment, or, there is equipment – because from acquiring equipment contracts you can get a small bribe – but no doctors to operate them because they emigrated to other countries due to poor salaries. What’s next? Are we in a state of war and we didn’t yet realize?
What is even more irritating is that for the past year, prosecutors have been actively serving high level corruption investigations to the public. Here and there, wherever they managed to survive, investigative journalists reveal even tougher details from cases that the prosecutors didn’t yet tackle or are too afraid to (as early as this spring, I wrote on Clean Romania that it is an aberration that Urdăreanu’s firms – those that made hundreds of millions of euro profit from state contracts – are the only ones capable of creating and implementing the electronic public procurement system and now, look, the Iași case popped up, which is just a fragment of Urdăreanu’s dealings with the state – see here). And every time the numbers are overwhelming, with instances where the stolen amount exceeds the yearly budget of some ministries! Even so, the level of outrage is almost insignificant. No, I’m not talking about a few thousands, a few tens of thousands of citizens who are now being considered “freaks” because they made a habit of participating in street protests on different topics such as the situation of the health sector in 2012, Roșia Montană, shale gas, illegal lodging, the Diaspora’s vote, city parks, the Somes river bank, Oprea (former Minister of Interior), the destruction of patrimony buildings – we reached the point when they are reproached for being “paid activists”, “on the Russians’, emigrants’, Soros’ or God knows who’s payroll”, “eco-terrorists”, “anarchists” as if all these weren’t actually referring to the same thing. It’s about a system riddled with cancer down to its smallest cell and that has enabled all the cases mentioned above to occur. And these accusations don’t just come from hired “commentators” or from lackeys who get a small benefit from those in charge, they also come from honourable individuals who are also unhappy with the suffocating situation, but whom, when the pain gets tough, find justifications and pretexts to linger on the margins and they even criticise the protesters, telling them that “this is not the way to do things”, that there are (there always are) “loftier causes” to spend energy on, or that they cannot team up with Mr. X or Mr. Y who are also protesting because Mr. Y is wearing a hipster T-shirt or Mr. X’s hat is too red, green, orange, yellow or blue and, at the end of the day, why is Mr. X wearing a hat?
The Colectiv tragedy is about a corrupt business owner who did not invest in his clients’ safety, it is about some public servants who pretended not to see this, it is about a broken system which is rotten from the bottom to the very top, and, especially, it is about a criminal system, incapable at decisive moments to ensure the safety of a few youngsters who went out to a club one night (and you can’t find fault in going clubbing, as some say via out-of-this-world comments posted online). Beyond all these aspects, the Colectiv tragedy is also about a society, about a few million citizens who watch, take part, silently curse or angrily post on Facebook and then continue kidding themselves that change might come naturally. No, no fundamental change comes by itself, the same way in which the youngsters’ death did not come naturally no matter how many attempts will be made to interpret and treat it as an isolated case. Tragedies come naturally just in case of natural catastrophes, completely unpredictable. Even then, their destructive effects can be minimised if measures are taken early on.
P.S.: The presence of the Minister of Interior on site is normal, a sign of what should happen. The fact that Romania’s Minister of Interior is Gabriel Oprea, the one in a hurry to get home – as he had done hundreds of times before, thus endangering the lives of his subordinates – is the grotesque image of Friday night and of the tragedy that we are faced with every day in Romania. The sad fact is that he wasn’t in a hurry to analyse neither documents and studies on how to fix Bucharest’s traffic problems so that ministers who have emergencies wouldn’t need official police escorts, nor documents about the capacity of Bucharest’s hospitals and in the rest of the country to handle major emergencies, nor documents on the safety conditions of public spaces in Romania (others than those meant to defend the privileged), but actually to see how the number of official police escorts and the privileged who can take advantage of them can be increased.