Protests over worst tragedy in 25 years triggers government’s fall
On 30 October, the Colectiv nightclub in District 4 of Bucharest caught fire during a rock concert attended by nearly 400 people. The blaze began when fireworks were used, which ignited, in less than a minute, the ceiling which was covered in inflammable soundproof foam. The fire, toxic smoke and general mayhem that resulted as people rushed out through the door, caused, so far, 45 deaths, with many more remaining in hospital with severe burns. This is the biggest single human tragedy in Romania since the fall or Stalinism in 1989.
There are multiple apparent levels of guilt here, starting with the three owners of the club (now detained and awaiting trial). The club had no fire exit and no authorisation to organise concerts for hundreds of people (only to host 80 people (all seated!). The ceiling was covered in cheap, inflammable foam (non-inflammable foam is available on the market). Secondly, the authorities (including the district mayor, also detained and awaiting trial) who granted authorisation to a club that lacked a fire exit and despite its regular concerts holding hundreds. Thirdly, the emergency services– notwithstanding their staff’s tremendous effort and commitment – were initially disorganised and ill-equipped. The first unit of fire fighters who arrived at the scene could not get into the building because they did not have oxygen masks (shortcomings that, as shown below, are the result of more structural problems in Romanian society).
In a country where corruption is deemed as the norm, this tragic event has been readily, and somewhat understandably, attributed entirely to the old Romanian institution of dodging the law by officials and citizens, alike. The popular outrage triggered by this event materialised last week in probably the country’s biggest mass protests in the last 25 years. Over 30,000 marched through the streets of Bucharest and thousands also through other major cities. As a result, the government led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta (one of the names most commonly associated with big corruption) of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) resigned on the same day, in a surprisingly hasty way. Following that resignation, the country’s centre-right President Klaus Iohannis convoked ‘representatives of the civil society’ to consult them about the composition and agenda of the next government. This top-down appeal was nothing but a manipulative move meant to give people the illusion of ‘real democracy’ and ‘social dialogue’. It was made with very short notice, not giving enough time for the ‘representatives of the civil society’ to properly organise (and was only carried out in Bucharest not across the whole country) and with a draft a minimum list of demands. No wonder then that those who accepted the President’s generous invitation are mostly well-funded and well-connected NGOs with an explicit neoliberal agenda (the Romanian ’civil society’ establishment). In this process, the representatives of the working class majority played no significant role whatsoever.
These consultations were followed by talks with the parliamentary political parties, which predictably led to the appointment on Tuesday, 10 November, of a technocratic prime minister, Dacian Ciolos, until the next general elections, in one year’s time. ‘Technocratic’ is these days a code name for neo-liberal and Ciolos is no exception. He was Minister of Agriculture in a right-wing government between 2007 and 2008, briefly an advisor on agriculture to the right-wing President Basescu, only to become a Commissioner for Agriculture (2010-2014) in the last Barroso-led European Commission. Indeed, over the last year, he has been a special advisor to the current president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Thus, the political trajectory of this ‘technocrat’ has been linked to right wing, neoliberal political parties and figures. He is expected to start ‘institutional reform’ and the ‘anti-corruption fight’ in Romania, most likely within the same neoliberal framework.
While there has been a deeply entrenched culture of corruption in Romania, it is not only facile but also dangerous to focus exclusively on it. This serves, and it has done, as a populist tool for neoliberal capitalism to obscure or even legitimise deeper, structural problems in Romania that capitalists directly benefit from, including more severe and sophisticated forms of corruption (some of them directly responsible for the tragedy in club Colectiv).
The corruption of big transnational capital has been constantly overshadowed by the ‘anti-corruption’ struggle in Romania. To advance their interests, transnational corporations often collude with the local culture of corruption. Last year, a mega-scandal revealed that Microsoft had given over $50 million in bribes to high officials in three successive Romanian governments in order to get license fees for their products increased! Subsequently, several other IT giants, such as IBM, Fujitsu-Siemens, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, were proved to be involved in this gigantic bribe scheme! As in other cases (e.g. Chevron’s fracking project in eastern Romania two years ago), the sole focus was on the corrupt Romanian politicians and the corrupt Romanian employees of these big companies, as though the latter acted independently from their mother companies. In fact, they acted according to the inherent ‘logic’ of capitalism – maximize profits by all means. Laws, regulations, and rights are nothing but obstacles in this quest and when the big capital can give bribes to avoid them, it will happily do so.
The ‘anti-corruption’ mantra has been also used in Romania to legitimise the most brutal austerity measures carried out in Eastern Europe. In 2010, the right-wing government of Emil Boc took a loan from the IMF that was mainly used to recapitalise the Romanian branches of foreign banks. Like everywhere else in Europe, this neoliberal form of state intervention was paid for by cutting the pensions and wages in the public sector (already the lowest in the European Union) and by shrinking social services and public health care. All these cuts in public services (already among the most underfunded in the whole EU) have been justified precisely by an ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric targeting ‘the lazy that cheat the system and live on benefits paid by our taxes’ or ‘the corrupt and ineffective staff from the public health care system’. While the practice of paying doctors and nurses under the table is quite widespread in Romania, the solution would have obviously been to increase the ridiculously low wages of the medical staff, not to channel even less funds towards the public health system.
Cuts and corruption
These cuts not only made corrupt practices even more common than before but also cost human lives, as most recently proven by the tragic club fire itself. A new, state of the art hospital ward for burns could not be used because there had been no funding to buy an air purifier system needed to put the ward in operation. The ‘anti-corruption’ front (composed of NGOs, as well as several right-wing media outlets and public intellectuals) provided legitimacy to an austerity programme that proved to have fatal yet predictable consequences and which is itself a form of corruption of the highest degree. Austerity is ultimately nothing but a large-scale, organised and systematic theft from working people by the political and economic elites, which leaves the former even poorer than before, when it does not kill them.
The sole focus on ‘national corruption’ overshadows the neoliberal policy of deregulating the businesses and the labour market, as well as the accompanying, often hysterical, pro-business rhetoric. This sought to create a public consciousness that rejected a priori any criticism of businesses as ‘Communist’ and treated employers as untouchable ‘heroes who create jobs and wealth’. It is this hard-core capitalist paradigm that also contributed, along with the corruption of local authorities, to the tragedy in club Colectiv. It encouraged and facilitated the maximisation of profits at all costs, even at the cost of the health and safety of workers and consumers alike. Among the 45 dead was one of the club’s cleaners, Maria Ion, a 38-year old widow living in a one-room flat together with her five children and paralysed father. Once again, the role of public authorities not doing their job is undeniable in this tragedy. The club’s owners knew that they could get away with not respecting minimum health and safety regulations because they knew they could bribe the right people.
The debate on corruption in Romania has been constantly missing the most fundamental question of all: what makes corruption thrive? What makes doctors who are supposed to treat their patients for free and inspectors who are supposed to close down illegal clubs do otherwise and take bribes? ‘Cultural models’ and habits play a role in this, but the main structural causes of corruption as a mass-scale phenomenon have always been and always will be poverty and inequality, which are themselves enhanced by corruption. Statistics show that the most corrupt countries in the world are among those with the highest social inequalities and highest proportions of their populations living in poverty. Even a staunchly neoliberal magazine like Forbes acknowledges the interdependence between corruption on the one side and poverty and inequality on the other side. However, the ‘anti-corruption’ front in Romania has constantly overlooked this interdependence, focusing solely on ‘national corruption’ (understood in a narrow way, as shown above) and not on its structural causes of poverty and inequality. Overlooking the causes and addressing only some of the symptoms only perpetuates the ‘disease’, thus serving those groups in society that directly benefit from both its causes and symptoms.
Revealing these links between corruption and ‘anti-corruption’, on the one side, and the big business, neoliberal policies, poverty and inequality, on the other side, is one of the main tasks of the Romanian Left today. All these problems are inherently interdependent and we cannot properly deal with one without dealing with the others, for they all have the same root cause – capitalism. And there have been some good signals in that direction over these last couple of weeks, unlike during the 2013 mass protests against the gold mining project at Rosia Montana, when the Left was fragmented, disorganised and rather timid. This time several members of several left-wing groups in Bucharest (Frontul Comun pentru Dreptul la Locuire [The Common Front for the Right to Housing], Gazeta de Arta Politica [The Gazette of Political Art], Pumn [Fist], Claca, MozaiQ, Quantic, CriticAtac) co-signed (although only the former two as organisations) an open petition entitled “The future has a Collective author: The demands of the Left” (not only a direct reference to the club where the tragedy happened but also a slogan from the 2013 protests). The petition – signed so far by nearly 1,000 people – makes seven demands: 1) increase the funding for the public healthcare system; 2) increase the funding for state agencies in charge of regulating and controlling public services and the labour market; 3) enforce the right to housing of all people, regardless of their ethnic group and social class; 4) revise the entire tax system and introduce progressive taxation on income and profit; 5) nationalise abandoned buildings and use them for public and social purposes; 6) redirect the increase in the budgets for security and intelligence agencies towards public and social services; 7) end the overfunding of the Romanian Orthodox Church by the state.
While these demands are clearly limited to reformism and make no mention of capitalism or the need to overcome it, they represent an obvious progress compared to previous similar situations, as they amount to one of the first public and common statements of the fragmented and young alternative Left in Romania. Indeed, members of most of these groups formed a compact left bloc during the protests in Bucharest, with distinct left-wing messages, such as “Poverty kills”, “Hospitals, schools and social houses, not cathedrals!”, “We need to die to get social housing: Maria Ion, 1977-2015” etc. Both the petition and the left-wing presence on the march represent a step forward for the Romanian Left, which would have been inconceivable only five years ago. The next step should be the formation of a truly socialist political organisation to oppose neoliberal capitalism and neo-colonialism, as there is an absolute gap on the left in Romania and, at the same time, arguably the most favourable context for such an organisation since 1989.