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‘The day we give in is the day we die’

Romania
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Tens of thousands of Romanians march against government corruption. by Vlad Petri

Following a devastating fire at a nightclub, Romanians have taken to the streets to protest corruption that kills. Cristiana Moisescu reports.

Thus ran the lyrics from Goodbye to Gravity’s song ‘The day we die’, as they played in the Colectiv nightclub on 30 October at the launch of their new album, Mantras of War.

Half an hour later, a fire broke out near the stage, set off by celebratory fireworks. In less than 15 minutes, it had swept through the club, killing 25 people and gravely injuring another 185. Among the dead, two of the band’s members, Mihai Alexandru and Vlad Telea.

A week later, on 3 November, the same lyrics appeared on protest signs, and were sung and shouted by throngs of people moving towards Bucharest’s Victoriei Square, to call out the government on its shameless lack of accountability. In total, more than 25,000 took part in the night’s protest.

On 4 November, an estimated 70,000 marched through the streets of Romania, filling their local squares, shouting down the country’s politics.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta had resigned earlier that day, taking down a much-maligned government with him. His resignation was quickly followed by that of Cristian Piedone Popescu, one of Bucharest’s district mayors, in whose jurisdiction the club was located.

There’s a sequence of events there which might not be immediately visible to the untrained eye, but to Romanians they are all too painfully connected.

Corruption links both the fire and the government: endemic, parasitic corruption. The club where the fire took place was operating without proper health and safety authorizations, with local authorities quietly ignoring the situation. There are hundreds of clubs like that all over the country, all with similar hazardous conditions.

I've written about the country’s corruption scandals before, but none have had quite the same emotional impact as this one. High-level corruption, involving exorbitant sums of money, rarely breaks into the daily worries of ordinary citizens, but petty corruption, bribes, shortcuts and back-alleying are part of a system known to all. Until now, however, the price had never been so high.

The Colectiv fire was merely a last, tragic drop in a sea of scandals, all involving cronyism and powerful politicians.

There’s the former vice-president, Gabriel Oprea, who, just two weeks ago, was up to his neck in a scandal involving the death of one of his police officers, who died in a motorcycle accident as he was speeding at 240 kilometres per hour as part of Oprea’s official motorcade; there’s the Social Democrat party leader, Liviu Dragnea, who recently ran for that leadership position against himself and won it with a resounding 97%; and finally, Ponta himself, whose latest exploits include an indictment for money-laundering, forgery and tax evasion.

These politicians are just some of Romania’s version of ‘Goodfellas’, apparatchiks too accustomed to play dirty to worry about individual consequences; until recently, they were also accustomed to winning.

The real shakedown started a year ago, when Ponta’s Social Democrat party – a reworking of the old Communist Party – failed to secure a sure-win presidential election, following a diaspora voting scandal which brought people to the streets in their thousands, abroad as well as at home.

The votes went instead to current Liberal president Klaus Iohannis, but they were empty votes, sealed in desperation by a people tired of letting ‘them’ have their way.

Now the president is no better than a mannequin, only able to communicate through his Facebook page: ‘I understand what is being asked and what is expected, and they are right, someone has to take political responsibility. The next step is for politicians, who cannot ignore this sentiment of revolt,’ he says.

On 5 November, he appointed an interim prime minister, Sorin Campeanu, former Minister for Education, who is another member of the Old Guard. In a statement, Iohannis acknowledged the ongoing protests, saying that he has decided ‘to consult for the first time a new actor: the civil society’ and that he will meet up with ‘a group representing both the civil society and what we call “the street”.’

Ponta, meanwhile, will slink back to the shadows for the time being. There’s a formidably nice prosecutor waiting to talk to him about those money-laundering charges, and there’s no better time to do it than now, when he is stripped of immunity and unencumbered by his well-meaning cronies.

There has been great deal of talk about the ‘social media’ revolutions – the Arab Spring sparked the concept, and now social media is organically propelling similar movements in Europe. There’s also a great deal of hope surrounding this – the Facebook generation, they’re calling us.

With the protest on 4 November, Romanians proved that they can rally around a common cause and be moved enough to take to the streets, in numbers higher than had been seen since the revolution which toppled communism 25 years ago. They proved that they can’t be bought off with mere resignations, that the cancer grows deeper.

Even so, all is not well. Reports have come from protesters out on the streets talking of suspicious groups overriding the movement, being violent, manoeuvring the situation. A closer look shows them to be party affiliates, local thugs and paid bullhorns.

Now that the prime minister and his government have toppled, it’s easier than ever to get side-tracked, to forget to keep demanding real change, not just a nominal one. There are questions to be answered now: what kind of political system do we want? What kind of country do we want to grow up in, grow old in?

Still, even with the 60,000 out in the streets, and with another protest scheduled for this week, one can’t help but wonder: why did we let it go so far? And since we have, aren’t we part of the system too?

‘Corruption kills’, said many of the protesters’ signs. So far, the death toll has reached 33, and counting.

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