The fire that broke out at club in the center of Bucharest in October 2015, killing 63 people and injuring many more, was caused not just by a spark touching the polyurethane acoustic foam lining the walls. Corruption, in various forms, was also to blame.
In the days after the tragedy, large numbers of Romanians took to the streets against what for decades they had refused or been unable to acknowledge: that corruption kills. Until the fire, corruption had been a crime affecting people’s lives in ways that were difficult to see and understand. That perception now changed. The end result was that a government perceived as a symbol of corruption was forced to resign.
Corruption was linked to the shocking event in various ways. Among the questions raised by journalists was how the owners had managed to organize concerts with hundreds of spectators in a room with a single exit and no windows. How could the authorities and fire department have approved the venue, when the acoustic foam was highly flammable? Especially since one of the managers had a record: two of his previous clubs had also burned down. Suspicions mounted and evidence started coming together. The club’s owners and the local mayor were arrested. In the days after, clubs all over Bucharest closed, as owners refused to take further risks. This only increased people’s fear. The message was: it could have happened anywhere.
The history of the building itself – a former shoe factory appropriated by the communist regime – also involved corruption. After the revolution, the site had been bought by real estate business registered in Cyprus, for a price well below the market value.
Corruption continued to kill in the weeks afterwards. Thirty-seven of the 63 victims died while being treated in hospital, or afterwards. The medical system is a long-term victim of corruption. In many hospitals, the equipment is old, the walls are peeling, and infections are common. Researching an article about corruption in Romanian hospitals a month before the fire, I talked to a doctor who had moved to Germany. She told me that she could no longer tolerate an environment in which young doctors are expected to pay bribes to be employed in hospitals, and where salaries of around 300 euros force them to take bribes from patients. In one hospital she worked for, medical staff wore street shoes in the operating rooms and stole food from patients. Such places were supposed to treat the dozens of casualties with severe burns.
According to a Eurobarometer in 2013, 28% of Romanians have bribed a nurse or doctor, compared to only 5% in the EU as a whole. In a recent case, an oncologist was filmed taking bribes from 13 cancer patients in a single day. The only unusual thing about this case was that it came to court. Corruption fills holes in hospitals’ budgets and politicians acknowledge and silently encourage it. In September 2015, the government even considered legalizing bribes as a way to bring money into the system.
Nevertheless, the fight against corruption has stepped up in recent years. The European Commission periodically evaluates the activity of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA). The most recent report, published at the end of January, commended its performance in 2015, “with regular indictments and conclusion of cases concerning senior politicians and civil servants.” According to the report, the 1250 defendants charged with corruption last year included the prime minister, former ministers, MPs, mayors, presidents of county councils, judges, public prosecutors and a wide variety of senior officials. The DNA also froze assets amounting to 452 million euros.
With more corruption cases reaching the courts, the mess has become more visible and public fury has grown. The fact that most of the victims were young meant that outrage was especially strong among the under 25’s. The name of the club, Colectiv, became a symbol of the need for reform. “A considerable part of the younger generation believes that the country does not live up to their expectations,” the Romanian sociologist Barbu Mateescu told me days after the fire. “It is a generation that is impatient, that is less willing to accept compromise, that wants Romania to be a country worth living in, precisely because they have decided to stay here.”
On November 3, around 30,000 demonstrators gathered in the center of Bucharest. On their way to parliament, they stopped in front of the government building. They demanded the resignation of the prime minister, Victor Ponta, who had been accused of corruption-related crimes months before. There were cries of “Assassins” and “Shame on you”, and some people had banners reading “Corruption kills”. Ponta announced his resignation the next morning.
The established parties seemed bewildered by the rift between them and the voters. They made way for a technocrat government, led by the former EU commissioner for agriculture, while they regroup for the elections at the end of this year. However, it would be simplistic to claim a victory for anti-corruption in Romania. The question is, which political party will manage to appropriate the Colectiv movement. The first attempts are already underway.
Vlad Odobescu is a journalist affiliated with the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Bucharest. From October to December 2015 he was Milena Jesenská Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
© Author / Transit Online