Second verse same as the first


Well after stumbling, fumbling, bumbling (and a whole lot of grumbling and mumbling from those on the sidelines), at long last the Constitutional Court (CCR) officially ruled that the referendum of July 29 is invalid. Officially they will announce their ruling tomorrow and then it gets passed onto the Parliament and then it’s almost certain that Basescu will return to office.

Therefore for the second time in five years, after wasting a colossal amount of everyone’s time and energy, not to mention money (some 40 million Euros all told), not a damn thing has changed after Basescu’s enemies tried to use a public referendum to remove him from office. That being said, neither the wasted money nor the energy expended uselessly nor even the CCR’s ruling today really means a damn thing.

I still hold to my original assertion that the USL has engineered a coup d’etat this year. But a friend of mine and I were discussing a coup in another country, the 2009 coup in Honduras, which was somewhat similar. The president of Honduras was forcibly removed after a dispute involving a public referendum and then the courts said getting rid of the president was legal. The parliament agreed and the president has never returned. But Honduras today has descended into wide-scale civil strife, gang warfare, looting, robbing, rapes and daily killings in the capital and chaos is king.

Here in Romania you’d have to pick up a newspaper to even know that anything had happened at all. Whether in the days of Boc/Basescu this spring or Ponta/Antonescu this summer, not a damn thing has changed in the everyday lives of people here. So why did Honduras collapse into near total anarchy and lawlessness and here in Romania everything is placid and calm (if you don’t count currency fluctuations)?

That’s because in Honduras and other countries, there is what Romanians call the statul de drept, known in English as the “rule of law”. Every nation, even North Korea, has laws “on the books” written down somewhere in black and white. But these laws are just words on paper if they have no effect on daily life. And in some countries applying and interpreting these laws is serious business and people care deeply about them. Here in Romania there are billions of laws and yet not a damn one is ever followed, USL in power or not, PDL in power or not. The CCR could rule tomorrow that eating ice cream for breakfast was now mandatory and it wouldn’t change a thing.

In order to have a “proper” coup like they did in Honduras, you have to do two things. The first is seize the organs of power, like the USL did here in Romania. But the second thing you have to do is use your new powers to enforce those laws. That’s something that no one in Romania has done since Iliescu’s much-loathed mineriada back in the summer of 1990.

The CCR’s ruling today is theoretically based on a careful analysis of how many people are eligible to vote and whether 50% + 1 of that number went to the polls. But the truth is that the USL, even with all of its energies and desires to manipulate the number of eligible voters, has no earthly idea what that number actually is. The PDL certainly doesn’t. The INS (bureau of statistics) doesn’t either. Neither does the Interior Ministry. Neither does the AEP (another gov’t institution). Nobody does. There are all kinds of guesses and hunches and maybe this maybe that but the truth that everyone knows that no one knows.

No one even knows what the law is on how you even determine that number. I heard officials at the county (judet) level debating that very topic. If a person is born in Romania and is a citizen but then moves to America for five years and has no house in Romania are they still eligible to vote in Romania? If a person is a Romanian citizen but their identification documents are expired by the time they go to the polls, does their vote count? If a Romanian has two properties in two counties, which county should list him as a resident? All these questions and more are “up in the air” and debatable because nobody really knows. Not me, not you, not lawyers, not even the CCR knows.

You don’t have to be involved in national politics to see this. Any time you have any dealings with the Romanian government there are never any laws. When an official tells you that you need a certain paper or a stamp, ask them to show you the law where it says these things are obligatory. They won’t show you because they can’t. Somewhere in some kind of book there might be a “real law” but absolutely nobody knows what it is.

Over the years I’ve had foreigners ask me for advice on dealing with immigration and residency problems here in Romania. I tell them the same thing I’m going to tell you – if you’re having an issue, just go back to the office at a different time or a different day and speak to someone else. One guy (or woman) might say it’s “absolutely mandatory” to have document X but a different guy (or woman) on a different shift might say you don’t need document X but you need document Y. It’s not even a question of bribery or calling in favors – not even the immigration officials know what the hell the laws are. Nobody does.

Romania is a little bit like one of those packages you see sometimes at the post office or on the conveyor belts in the arrivals hall at an airport, beat up as hell and held together with an enormous amount of twine or packing tape. Somehow, some way, miraculously the whole thing is still being held together but if you remove that tape it the whole thing disintegrates.

In this metaphor, laws are the original package itself and the packing tape and twine are the daily customs and social norms of a society. Yeah, theoretically Romania is both a democracy and run by laws but there is no internal foundation. If we had to rely on laws and democracy to hold Romania together the country would disintegrate tomorrow.

Instead we rely on customs, norms, traditions and social expectations. That guy at the immigration office isn’t consulting some damn law book to figure out whether or not you’ll get your residency permit – he’s just going by “what’s normal”, what his colleagues have told him is expected, what he personally thinks is how you do it. That’s why I tell foreigners not to give up hope and to go back another day – the next guy might have less stringent beliefs on what is the normal custom and practice.

Back when Romania joined the European Union there were horror stories of EU inspectors traipsing after shepherds in the hills, using thermometers to make sure that their age-old techniques for making cheese followed EU standards. But here in 2012 it matters not what the laws say – the same pig slaughtering, cheese making, tuica brewing and wine making is going on the same way as it always has because that’s the custom here.

Customs and social norms are what matters here, never laws. They are building a house next door to me and every single day I see workers 15 meters in the air without even so much as a hard hat on much less any other safety gear. They drink beer on their lunch break and nobody bats an eye because that is the custom – fuck what the law says. The clerk at the store near my house sells cigarettes to an 8-year-old girl all the time because he knows, as do all of us in the neighborhood, that her mother is sick and confined to bed. Is it “legal” according to the law? Of course not. But it’s permissible because it’s the common custom.

That’s why everyone “breaks the law” here, even if they’re not doing so for corrupt or greedy reasons. Nobody, not even the lawyers and experts, ever really know what the law is and nobody has any appetite whatsoever for implementing them. What matters is the common custom. Smoking has been outlawed on CFR trains for years (probably due to EU pressure) but a custom has been developed that it’s “okay” to smoke as long as you do it in the doorway at the end of the car. I sincerely doubt a single person in all these years has ever received a fine for smoking on a train as long as they followed the common custom.

And right on up to national referendums, where the USL was visibly shocked (and a little outraged) that the EU and Manuel Barroso actually insisted that the laws on the books be followed exactly, especially the 50% + 1 minimum participation rule. Even Basescu himself barely knew what to do when the EU stepped in to stiffen the CCR’s spine on this issue and only called on his supporters to boycott the referendum on the last day he was eligible to address the public before the vote.

Meanwhile in the last three weeks the CCR has been fucking around with leaked statements to the press and bizarre decisions (apparently) published by clerks and all the rest simply because they were (essentially) looking to find out how to make sure they were following the common customs and only secondarily paper it over with justifications based on black and white laws.

And while it looks like this referendum to suspend Basescu will fail, just like the one did in 2007 (which also was less than 50% + 1 but the voters who did vote were in the majority pro-Basescu), everyone forgets that a different referendum in 2009 passed the CCR’s muster and was declared valid and legal, a referendum mandating that the Parliament be smaller and be comprised of only 300 members total. Has that ever been implemented? Of course not.

A national referendum was held that mandated such a change and it passed all legal hurdles and was declared valid and yet the Parliament followed the common custom, not the law, and just refused to implement it. That happened three years ago and not a single party has recently ever made mention of it or promised to make it happen.

So yeah, it looks like Basescu will return to office soon. For now at least it looks like the USL and Ponta and Antonescu will howl and scream and moan and sob but will not resign. It looks like their attack dog Dogaru will continue to make problems. It looks like the PDL sharks like Blaga, Udrea and Macovei will continue to scream, moan and sob from the other side. And meanwhile not a damn thing will change in anyone’s lives here down at street level, which will go on with the same miserable poverty as it always has.

Widespread apathy being, of course, the common custom here in Romania.

If found in European Union do NOT return to sender!

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12 Responses »

  1. Hi Sam, I usually agree with your opinion and even this time you’re right that the laws are not known and few people care about them but I would not be that pessimistic that nothing will change. Several issues came up and they need a resolution. Also the public realized that there are laws higher than the will of the clique in power. I personally saw no apathy but again like in the first years after revolution a passionate discussions on the subject. Anyway I like again the article even if I do not agree with part of it. Keep writing please

  2. You are really becoming a Romanian, I saw resignation in your words :)

  3. Happy now ? Just wait and see……..the Romanians aren’t as stupid as you think ! Well, you are “a-sort-of-new-comer” and haven’t YET discovered the DEEP ROMANIAN SOUL besides what CULTURE is concerned and, for that I must give you a 10+++++ appreciation but PLEASE, keep out of politics :-)

    • Dear Monika,

      May I ask which country are you from? You remember me of a Norwegian lady who made even me, a surly and hedgehog-like Romanian, to pull out my thorns and begin to smile. Thank you for your answer.

  4. I feel what you are saying Sam and yet I do see a light in this story.

    There are so many examples (USA prominent in my mind) where apparent rule-of-law exists and yet there is so much elaborate abuse of it (I believe the legal term for that is “loopholes”) … and the legal system is so elaborate and complex that it is de-facto helpless to face these abuses. The law ends up serving things that go against common sense, a better good and against the normative behaviors of the people it is applied to and supposed to protect.

    There is something to be said for customs that are respected and shared by people. There is only so far you can go just on customs … so something more is needed.

    As with many other things I see Romania’s “backwardness” in these issues an invitation and opportunity to pursue better things … any opportunity that does not exist in societies that are trapped and abused by “the law”.

  5. I really really like the loose interpretations of the law and rules in Romania. SUA has become so stifling to live in and I sometimes feel I can’t breathe. I have never had a problem breathing in Romania:D

  6. I have to disagree on the most things you’ve said here. I worked many years in the Romanian public administration and I still have pretty good knowledge about what happens there. Firstly, whereas the laws could be sometimes labeled as”interpretable”, you’ll find that there actually is legislation providing for what documents or forms should be required in certain circumstances. Even if the guy/woman from behind the counter may not know exactly where does it say that it should be filled this form and not another and what documents should be enclosed, I can guarantee you that in the same building are people who do know. As regards that one guy may require from you a document which his colleague perhaps wouldn’t, this may have a simple explanation. Any law giver knows it’s highly unlikely to have covered in its text every possible occurrence and often the legislation may contain general provisions; for instance, in case of issuing an official document, one can read at the bottom of the list of documents and statements provided by the law a sentence like “any other document which the issuing institution’s representatives deem as being necessary “ for this purpose. In other words, different cases may be judged differently and some things could be required in some circumstances while in others would be not. Furthermore, the public employee is required to use its “good judgement” and one person’s “good judgement” may not coincide with another person’s. You may have noticed that usually it’s about some less important papers not about completely mandatory documents. I don’t think this is unusual or not happening in the “civilized” countries. For instance, some more than 10 years ago, when we imported and tried to adapt the International Standards on Accounting to our bookkeeping, we were shocked that instead of some detailed rules and rigid laws, we received a huge set of mostly guidelines, in which the accountant’s “good judgement” was crucial. Moreover, the EU legislation is nothing short of extremely interpretable (at least in the domains I know of) and the cases of infringements and highly arguable ECJ rulings are more than common occurrence. Not only in our case, the little humble newcomers, but especially in the case of founding members. Not to mention that every day are brought to the surface new facts and occurences to which the beaurocrats of Bruxelles have no idea how they should be dealt with. So if there is a general legislative chaos, be fair and don’t blame solely us.

    As for how many electors has Romania…I cannot give you a precise answer as it wasn’t my domain. But, even if there is no one who can tell exactly how many people are now elligible to vote (whose fault is this I’m in no mood to remember, because, really, it sickens me), there are some people who must have even now a pretty good idea. I mean, coroborating all the data given by several institutions, anyone in his right mind and in conscience could only conclude that we are NOT 18,3 millions elligible to vote. Knowledgeable people could conclude much more, I’m not among them, but, really, who cares? It seems that once again the dice was cast for Romania by…only God knows exactly, in my opinion. I suppose that some 60 years ago, most Romanians didn’t know exactly what a certain comrade Vishinsky was doing around here. One day we’ll find out but well, as I learned, not only politics is a whore but sometimes History is as well. Ah, and by the way, about that apathy, I didn’t see it. On the contrary, yesterday evening around the National Theatre of Bucharest, I saw and lived a hellload of excitement. I’ve never seen in my life such hatred and fierceness and, to my shame, I‘ve to confess that I’ve never experienced them either. Until now.

  7. Things are the way they are precisely because Romanians want them like that – from the very top to the very bottom of society.

    Look at Romanians who emigrated to the West – most of them are at least in part unhappy about the new system they found there – and are only staying in that new place because they make more money there, and can afford more material posessions than they could in Romania. But in their deep soul, they keep loving the Romanian customs – that’s why most of their vacations are in their mother country.

  8. I don’t see resignation in your words. I see a hint of apreciation of reality of just how it is, without judgement. Why I had a nearly immediate love for Romania (after the first few days of total disorientation and helplessness) is how much just the place justplain works in common sense ways. I described it as co-operative chaos. A free and thinking man finds this a perfect as a society can be organised. Rules that make no practical sense, for example not parking on sidewalks, just are ignored by the three shifts of turnaround, that just seems to work by itself. All are take into acount and accomidated, except those who’s elitist sensibilities are easily offended.

  9. The above was my post. But I’d like to ad a bit more.

    A few observations pertaining to Romania, and conclusions I have come to.

    There is by far a clearer and more in-depth understandning of the forces at work in the political parties and their leaders, internal and external economic forces, all the potential entities that would seek to exploit the resources and people of the country, than the population in the US. This generation in particular holds the potential to rewrite the direction of the future of Romania. But the young and old are also street wise yet have a strong longing for better. Regardless of the complaints and frustration, they have one thing that has been lost long time ago in the US, hope. I would say, even with the turmoil and stuckness, there is the kind of potential there that the US had in the late sixties. A fairer society. Individually there is frustration that none of the leaders have risen to the potential that the country and it’s citizens have had an expection for. Yet they have not given up, and let their lives and minds be a distraction, to a helplessness to seeing a better society. They still have what we have lost.

    Compare Romania to Russia or Ukraine. There is not control by oligarcs, militia, of the mob. Nor is it all sold out to foreign capital or institutions. These things exist, but there is a individual and group Romain self preserving instinct, and almost like a governor on an engine, feet get dragged, fingers get pointed, tongues get wagged, people get shamed, so that the whole country does not get sold down the river wholesale. And even instituions that have some corruption (all do), are laughed about for that, because even they have a conscious and even they in their hearts have a deep seated pride as Romainians, ie the Romanian Orthodox Church.

    Another thing to consider. Take any random Romanian and regardless of a problem that arises, there are 3 immediate solutions generated on the spot. There is always a sharp and creative mind ready to be engaged there.

    What is the only missing piece I think, are enough grass roots institutions of civil society. Ten institutions as created and living as Dr. Arafat maintains for the sake of service only, would bring all engaged, like the minutemen did in US history. If there were enough civil society insitutions and allignment and concerted vision and action by them, then that I think could alter the landscape of the future forever.

  10. 1) Come on, why put Udrea and Macovei together in the same sentence? They are worlds apart! And calling Macovei a “shark” – now that’s exagerated!

    2) I’d like to point out to you that the 2009 referendum was merely “consultative”. It only asked for the people’s *opinion* on a matter. Legally, its result cannot enforce anything upon anybody, its result being non-binding. It may sound weird, but that’s what the law says.

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