Wednesday, 11 November 2015

So what has been achieved by nine days of protests?


The death toll from the fire in the Colectiv club has tonight reached fifty.

Eight days of protests in Bucharest have come to an end - last night I am told there were only fifty people in Piaţa Universităţii - and what has been achieved?


Perhaps. The spirit of the Romanian revolution of December 1989 was released again and walked among us.

The Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, and the mostly Social Democratic government resigned. Which is good. It is always good when Social Democratic governments resign.

But they were going to do so this this month anyway, I am told, by people who say they know. The carnage enabled P
rime Minister Victor Ponta, who is being prosecuted for corruption, and his deputy Gabriel Oprea, blamed widely though unfairly for the death of a police motorcyclist in his cortège, to go with a decent cover - resigning for something which was not really their fault, any more than any other political party's. There were no fewer fire hazards when the National Liberals were in power than now or, going far back enough, when the National Peasant Party were in government.

The word spontaneous is often misused in Romania to describe protests that are organised by political parties or even elements of the secret service but Tuesday's 25,000 strong march in Bucharest seems to have been launched largely by people who did not have experience of demonstrations. This sense of community and public spiritedness, which began with queueing to donate blood and collect money to buy medical supplies and led to the demonstrations every night, in a city where selfish individualism is very much the norm, was a very striking thing. Can this spirit last and achieve things? 

President Klaus Iohannis yesterday nominated a technocrat, Dacian Ciolos, a former European commissioner and an expert on agriculture, as Prime Minister in place of Victor Ponta. A man who has served in previous National Liberal administrations but has spent much of his time in Brussels. An almost blank sheet of paper.

What did the crowd in the streets want? Someone tried to explain to me but I explained to him that crowds have no programme, no demands. Crowds have only the meaning that others assign to them. But most protesters certainly did not protest so that the opposition parties could replace the governing parties.

Technocrats are in principle undemocratic - a politician's job is not to run things efficiently but to lead and to make controversial and difficult decisions according to principles for which they have an electoral mandate. But Romanian political parties do not behave like this, in any case, to any noticeable extent and technocrats are a good solution to the needs of the times. 

They also have the advantage, from his point of view, that they leave only one elected politician in power, President Iohannis. In effect he will now be running the country. Which is what many of the people who voted for him in December last year probably want. He is the only politician in Romanian who is respected because he is seen as an outsider, an anti-politician, a clean and successful mayor of a provincial town, because he has done almost nothing and said very little since becoming president.

People wanted rid of 'the political class', all the politicians, but this, though very laudable, is very hard to do. And yet it seems almost to be happening. President Iohannis came to power elected by people who voted against the political class. He promised to clean it up but instead so many politicians are being prosecuted by the Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) that the job is being done for him, far better than he could do it.

His not interfering with the work of the DNA, as the Social Democratic candidate for the presidency, Victor Ponta, would probably have done, is Mr. Iohannis's great and, so far, his only achievement.

Someone said to me tonight that everyone but a moron knew basement bars in Bucharest's old town were fire hazards. I am that moron, but anyway almost never go to bars. It's the bar owner's fault before the state's, he said, and the faulty of those organising events in hazardous bars. I had to agree. We like to blame the state for so many things that are our fault.

The only real surprise, looking back, is that a fire like the one in Colectiv did not happen before. And not just because the fire department is dilatory, stupid and very fond of bribes, but because people - club owners, club employees, customers, bands, didn't bother to avoid places that, had they stopped to think, they knew must be fire hazards. And it is no good blaming corrupt and stupid officials, or their bosses, the stupid and  corrupt politicians, for all manner of sins of omission. We the inhabitants of Romania should look at making the change in ourselves that we want to see in the world around us.


  1. ? How do you make an awesome hipster club that one loves going to safe on one's own? Force the owner at gunpoint? Paul, you are not making any sense. The city's corrupt officials are complicit in allowing for places to open that fail any kind of safety inspection and allowing themselves to be bribed.

  2. Hey, man, it's rock&roll! Nobody checks for fire exits!

    1. They do in the USA. Fire inspections are ruthless.

  3. The market changes behaviors much better than government, an unappealing Conservative statement but in this case with a grain of truth.Talking to people in Lipscani I know who are bar owners whose establishments are both surface and subsoil tell me that in recent weeks customers have been entering looking for a table and on not finding one being told there is plenty of space downstairs or up the rickety stairway , they have then been voting with their feet saying "no thanks we'll look elsewhere". The controls will get stricter I have no doubt as will scrutiny on seismic risk. Combine that with the smoking bans and the current tax evasion cases hitting big name clubs across the city and The old town is going to have a very different look come the spring.
    Although the protests have faded for now I don't think they are over yet, the mob that united in grief may not have known what they wanted and there were certainly agent provocateurs of all flags within it, including lots and lots of burly men in Eastern Ukrainian registered Landcruisers parked in rows within sight of Casa Popopului, however there is another core springing from the movement, political and humanist that simply wants normality rather than kleptocracy, driven by their own self interest I think they might have a chance to effect some change.

    Paul is right though the biggest effects will come from ourselves, don't tolerate the small acts of corruption, be vocal when you see or suspect it and most of all resist the temptation to circumvent the rules yourself.

    1. I see exactly this happening over the last few years especially with people in their 20s and 30s. Especially with the rockers and the Vama Veche crowd - rock music has a political significance which I like though I don't like the music. The manelists are different, very

    2. "rock music has a political significance which I like though I don't like the music. The manelists are different, very" Ha! How ?

  4. it is very sad on the same list there are some people of "questionable" former securitate support

    i wonder if you know which ones :)?

  5. Very incisive commentary, Paul!

  6. Good piece but it whimpers away at the end…the key issues are the political ones, not the “Health and Safety” dynamics, although I do tend to believe that in a modern society the job of checking whether a product or service is safe has been delegated to the civil servants. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get into a lift, a plane, a car and certainly not a ski lift!

    1. ... I would poll this in RO; no idea who trusts the trust makers

  7. I cannot read all of this. You must live in a very different country than we do out here north of Bucharest. I could pose an argument for much of what you say and the strongest would be to point you to the very precise and strong list of recommendations for change for the better made by members of the "civil society.". It is appalling when the corruption is so deep that there is little recourse for people to take when their jobs are threatened by the ones in power via stolen elections and then the ones elected who might have made changes would not take the risk. Oh how lovely is "the power" one has over the neighborhood. Ordinary people want to live. Not be afraid, not have their teachers hired according to who pays the biggest bribe rather than the one who actually has the qualifications, not have their right to their heritage stolen because the people who took the correct application as the law prescribed - those people "lost" it - twice. Other land has been taken from many people throughout this country and it was not the land of former super rich people. Just those folks who could not spend hours and hours and funds after funds to appeal in a court system that was not going to pay attention to the matter in the first place.. The saving grace is that there are those teachers here who are qualified and who do a great job, but they are paid a pittance compared to the value they bring to the country. And we do not mention the endemic poverty in the country - not to worry - it is not the political class. Did I see that they just voted themselves a raise?
    Was that for good governance or for good avoidance of doing the job.

  8. Whether Ponta or any other politician was going to resign this month or not is immaterial, the real prize was the government falling. Surely, there can be no doubt that the early demonstrations resulted in the government’s resignation?
    Did I think that the tide of protest would swell and result in a people’s revolution that would replace the one that was ‘stolen’ from the people in 1989? Yes, I hoped that it would. Was my optimism naive? Probably, bearing in mind the 25 years that I have been here, but I did want it so much.
    I work in the social sector; I work with the impoverished and those experiencing homelessness. I encounter the prejudice they face by the authorities, employers and other citizens. Their rights are ignored and the barriers to decent employment, financial support and affordable housing are so difficult to overcome, that it simply reinforces their feelings of helplessness and despair. I work with women and children who live on the streets, in apartment block stairwells and in abandoned buildings. One mother had three part-time jobs and was still unable to earn enough money to house herself and her children. I work with women who see living on the streets with their children as preferable to being abused and violated by someone they loved, but who turned into a thug who despised even his own children.
    Although the very large majority of County Council and local authority social services cannot obtain national accreditation, they are allowed to operate whilst NGO provided social services are fined and closed down if they do not comply with the same standards. My organisation managed to obtain a fire safety certificate - without bribes - but it cost us five years to do it.
    The system is generally corrupted, uncaring and a breeding ground for minor bureaucrats to wield an unhealthy sense of power that they joyfully use to wreak despair and confusion, particularly on the vulnerable. The system rewards those who are unscrupulous and penalises those who are fair and law abiding.
    People do not choose to be poor; it is governments that make the policies that create inequality and wealth disparity. Romania is the poorest country in the EU despite its resources, but of course we know why that is - corruption, embezzlement and theft of state and private assets. It is because I want to see that changes that I will continue to visit Piata Universitatii each evening for as long as I am not the only one there. Will it change anything? Probably not, but it might be the catalyst for change - change for the better.

    1. "My organisation managed to obtain a fire safety certificate - without bribes - but it cost us five years to do it." High time to put this one on a banner - I hope many, many cases will be heard !

      [... for the other things, there is never a good time - much that I know charity is either something power does or something nobody owes anything to - I am writing with awe ]

  9. To answer the question in the title as to what has been achieved, I would say that a new form of power has been discovered by the people (had they not been so complacent for so long, this very new and raw form of power would have seemed appalling to the very same people who now embrace it; in other words, had people not been gullible enough to believe practically anything they were being told, they would have found the idea of shouting their demands in the street absurd, because things would have never got so rotten in the first place). Although I believe that, like all forms of power, this one too is bound to be abused and lead to excesses, for the time being it is a most welcome opposition to the power of the various politicians and kleptocrats.

    However, I for one have trouble deciding which is worse: inept politicians doing a bad job (who at least have a semblance of accountability, even if only under the threat of being replaced by slightly less inept politicians) or people voting on Facebook whether the doctors in emergency rooms are properly equipped to handle major disasters and then expecting their voice to be listened to.

    Returning to the title question, I think Romania is less unbalanced now than it was until recently because politicians now know they can be challenged not only by other politicians (a situation which, as we all know, sooner or later is likely to lead to a cartel between all political parties), but also by this unpredictable, amorphous force: unorganized people.

    So I think that a necessary step has been taken on the road to Romania's eventually becoming an actual democracy.

    1. Hardly discovered... Romanians do get together often, if not for politics.

      This time, a customary trigger for demonstrative brotherhood - death by an "Act of God" - happened on the fringes of politics, close enough to be given useful meaning by all all parties [pun intended].

      [Attempted case in point: think of a country mayor braving the local fair - there are the people, staring & his time to give meaning to the moment - if anything is worth the gravitas; higher up politics does not get to meet the crowd on their own turf all that often... now, it happened ...
      Sum. do not look for clean causality. For what it doesn't matter, I'd say that implies another kind of power. ]

  10. That spirit is always there, Paul. That was not Catharsis, but a demonstrative gesture - from a higher power beyond politics. This time, apparently heeded with appropriate complexity: a honorable pardon was rendered, doubling with a threat [ approx. 'your power was lent, the interest that you paid fell short - now it is your turn to count what is owed to you' ]... a mandate was minted & defected from [greater discretion for venue certification, hence temporary closures - reminds of market closing to mend minor shocks], etc. I am very nearly tempted to look into Romanian party politics again: I expect much change, toward much more public party politics.


  11. I feel that it is still too early to make a judgement regarding what the recent nine days of protests have achieved. So far, we have only a partial answer. We know that the initial result has been that the former prime minister and his government have fallen: but what is actually more interesting is what will happen next. OK, Dacian Ciolos has been nominated for prime minister by the President, and he is busily seeking to put together a new government, but his choices for the government have yet to be voted on by parliament, which is still composed of the same gang of crooks as before the Colectiv disaster. In addition, we know little of value about Ciolos, e.g. how forceful and energetic he will be, how incorruptible he may be, what his vision for his new government is, etc.. After we know more about these things, we will understand better what the nine days of protests have achieved.

    On a different subject, I see, Paul, that you frequently refer to the events of December 1989 as a revolution. I feel this is entirely wrong. Sure, there was a popular uprising, but it was basically unsuccessful. What occurred was in my view a coup d'etat, where power was simply wrested from one faction of the Communist party by another - and the successful faction actually obtained power following the perpetration of violence on the people involved in the uprising. So, for sure, the Romanian people showed great spirit in rising up against the oppressive Ceausecu regime, but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful because a rival group within the same political class ended up in power. Arguably, the recent protests are simply a continuation of the Romanian people's 25-year-old struggle to see an efficient and relatively honest government installed. If that now happens under Dacian Ciolos, then the recent protests will really have achieved something remarkable. Sadly, however much I would like to see that happen, I fear it is unlikely.

    1. Yes. No revolutions... Thank you for reminding where the current parties hail from. I hope neither side has forgotten. Overheard the saying "one down, two to go" - Prime Ministers, that is. Perhaps there is still some taste for bold moves ? I am somewhat out of the loop with RO Liberal innards...