A few years ago, a friend of mine got a job where he went to homes and businesses specifically to eliminate mold (Rom: mucegai). Although he used a variety of specialized chemicals, the simplest and most effective method to kill fungi is to expose them to bright sunlight in a well-ventilated area.
I bring this up because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about corruption in Romania. Just like a fungus, corruption thrives in the dark, close areas where there is little light and no circulation.
Last week I wrote a modest proposal for eliminating some of the parking problems in Romanian cities and someone (accurately) noted that endemic corruption would stymie this effort – cars belonging to people with “juice” wouldn’t be towed while cars parked correctly would be towed just to extort money from the owners. Or records would be fudged, bribes taken to release cars, etc.
I thought long and hard about how this problem could be addressed – not just in a theoretical way (exhorting people to be good) but in a realistic way. While my car towing project (UK: scheme) is just a dream at the moment, every day there are news stories concerning real cases of corruption. As a longtime fan of Roxana Printesa Ardealului, certainly tobacco smuggling comes to my mind, with dozens of customs officers recently arrested.
So what can be done on these issues? Well I read this article on the state of journalism in Romania and while I sincerely loathe the tone the author takes and distrust both his intentions as well as his financial sponsors, this paragraph is quite relevant:
In a newsroom in the United States or Western Europe, reporters have access to a wide range of information, some of it in the form of databases, and they also have some confidence that those who hold government jobs are doing what they are said to be doing. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests usually do work eventually. Contrast this with reporters in Romania who must build databases from scratch by extracting information from a range of documents, and those can be quite difficult to get.
A week or so ago I read an unrelated and semi-literate blog post by another author about the current state of the real estate market here in Romania. On one hand, there’s a real shortage of available real estate in most cities. And on the other hand, what is for sale and on the market is often priced extremely high, not just in relation to Romanian salaries but expensive even for “western” countries like Britain or the United States.
Why is this so? Why is real estate so outrageously priced? I personally know of a restaurant building that’s been on the market for more than two years in Cluj. I also know what the owners are asking and it’s an absurdly high price. So the building sits there neglected and unused, the owners making no money and nothing gets done with the property.
In the United States, there are ample records of real estate, all available to the public. If you know how to access these documents (many of which online), it’s easy to look up the address for a house or commercial building and find out who the owners are and what they paid for it, as well as its assessed taxable value. The owner could easily look up other properties in the area and compare both their assessed value as well as recent sales data to know what the “market price” is their property.
That restaurant building owner in Cluj has no such option. He or she has no way to look and see what similar buildings sold for, or what they’re worth. Someone owning an apartment in a bloc has no way (other than via rumors and gossip) to know what similar (perhaps identical) apartments sold for in the same building. Even professional real estate firms can only compile data about properties they’ve sold or managed themselves and have no way of knowing what other properties are worth.
Therefore all one can do is guess when it comes to fairly assessing a property, whether to buy it or to sell it or something else. Most owners are afraid to guess too low and thus have a tendency to overprice their properties, leading to long years of vacancy or lack of tenants. Nobody wants to sell their apartment for 40 thousand euros and find out the neighbor across the hall sold his for fifty thousand.
Whether my hypothetical car towing program or freight crossing the border or journalism or real estate, Romania has very, very few public records of what’s going on. It’s practically impossible for me to even find arrest records in my city, or know what the local cop’s salary is, or get statistics on how many immigrants there are in Romania and where they come from (something that’d be useful to know to market my book, for example).
A great deal of corruption would be exterminated if it were exposed to sunlight – publicly available records. There are indeed a few large media companies that twist their newspapers and television reports to suit their own agenda. But in the age of the internet, it is certainly possible to conduct truly independent journalism (and not the USAID/Soros funded crap Stefan Candea is talking about).
I think everyone is at least somewhat familiar with WIkileaks. And that organization has released thousands and thousands of pages of documents. And all over the globe, interested parties (including bloggers) can go through those documents and extract what’s relevant, interesting and newsworthy.
I can’t speak for anyone else but if all of Cluj-Napoca’s records were publicly accessible (especially online), I’d be all over them like a tick on a hound dog, combing through each and every one of them. I don’t need a television station or a national newspaper either – just a simple blog and a few hours a day to dedicate to this project.
And if the employees at the hypothetical city parking lot were towing and releasing BMWs without (apparent) payment but extracting heavy tolls from Dacias, I’d be all over that until I found out exactly which employee was working at the exact moment a certain car came in, and whom that car belonged to. And by god there’d be a story, wouldn’t there?
Since I went “public” back in December to promote my book, I’ve been in contact with a lot of journalists and had the pleasure of meeting a few face to face. There are enough young, hungry, honest journalists out there to bring a whole lot of circulation to the activities going on in this country, who want to bring that corruption, secret deals, bribes and influence peddling to (sun)light. Yes, the “old guard” Romanian institutions and the bigwigs like Vantu would resist it heavily. But just like Wikileaks, the truth is quite appealing to “regular” people, and I believe that those who could root out these stories would prevail.
I cannot believe that making public documents accessible is that difficult of a task, especially as Romania is a full member of the European Union and there are lots of interested parties (NGOs, etc) with the financing to make it happen. Already all the bills and legislation in the Senate and Romanian parliament, along with declaratii de avere (statements about the property and income and vehicles they own) for national politicians are available online.
The more public the activities of the government, from the local to the national level, the fewer dark corners where the fungus of corruption could survive. Sunlight (publicly available records) and circulation (journalism) truly would kill almost every kind of mold (corruption).