A few weeks ago I read a piece called The Illusion of Corruption on the blog of a Romanian who grew up in Canada but has now returned to his homeland (and as a side note, the author is a personal friend) and the more I thought about it, the more I realized what he said is true.
There are a lot of foreigners who deal with Romania, from the casual tourists, volunteers and missionaries who come here on short trips to the businessmen and women who invest and work here to the NGOs, charitable organizations and EU politicians, plus American soldiers, global bankers (IMF, EBRD, WB, etc) and people working for various departments of the United Nations and yet if you don’t speak the language, it’s hard to really get a grasp of the endemic scale of incompetence that goes on here.
“Corruption” as a term tends to imply an aberrance, a (somewhat) rare breaking of the rules and laws, where greedy or evil men and women seek to profit (usually financially) and do so knowingly. The classic example of this is Adrian Nastase, the former prime minister, who was convicted in the “Quality Trophy” case for extorting money to fund his re-election campaign or Sorin Apostu, the incompetent goon who was the mayor here in Unicorn City, a man I tangled with personally, who was recorded on the telephone telling people to hide bribe money under watermelons (at the farmer’s market).
But I realize now that incompetence is really the heart of the matter, even when there is a level of corruption on top of it. Just today I was reading about the case of Alexandru Muresan, the former head of (County) Cluj’s traffic police, now under investigation for “financial irregularities” in the dry verbiage of the courts.
At the heart of the matter are two enormous bank loans that the Muresan family (husband and wife) obtained from BRD, a private commercial bank. The bank says that he falsified documents that established his income (the basis for the loans) while Muresan says that the bank falsified papers to get him in trouble (presumably under pressure from investigators). Muresan showed the bank his papers listing his income from his job (4700 lei per month or just over 1,000 euros) but then apparently also produced other papers showing “permanent income from other sources”, which the bank used to justify the loans.
Now I’ve been here long enough – and any Romanian living here knows – to instantly recognize that paperwork in this country is always tediously difficult, requiring a multitude of stamps and that getting a loan for 1.5 million euros would be damned near impossible for most people. So we’re left to choose between believing that A) the Muresan family bamboozled the bank with false papers or B) the bank for some reason falsified papers under pressure from someone in order to convict the Muresan family. Therefore either A) the bank’s loan officers are incredibly incompetent or else B) the bank’s employees are susceptible to prosecutorial pressure, enough so that they’d gin up false documents for a loan application.
Mind you, all of this is a drop in the proverbial bucket, but there is no way to analyze that one particular case and find anything of merit there. Like I said, even if the prosecution is 100% correct and the Muresan family ends up getting convicted (in a fair trial), it’s pretty shocking that a major commercial bank is handing out million euro loans without exercising due diligence.
Other, larger cases abound. Just last month, the Cluj (County) Court of Appeals ruled that the Romanian government must pay 130000 lei or roughly 31000 euros because back in 1999 DNA chief Daniel Morar arrested then-senator Liviu Ciupe on charges of corruption. Ciupe spent four months in jail but the charges were eventually dropped (presumably because they were unfounded). However during his incarceration, Ciupe’s mother died and Ciupe was not allowed to go to the funeral and the bulk of the payment ordered by the court last month was for “emotional damage” stemming from Ciupe’s suffering at being unable to go to his mother’s funeral.
Even if we assume that Morar was acting in good faith by arresting Ciupe (presumably because of solid evidence of criminal wrongdoing) , it shows a high level of incompetence that ultimately Ciupe was never ultimately charged (or convicted) of any wrongdoing and that Ciupe was prohibited from attending the funeral of his mother. Nobody ever accused Ciupe of murder or some other violent crime, only the misuse of public funds, and at the time that his mother died, he hadn’t even been convicted of anything. Pretty damned incompetent on Morar’s part.
So now the Romanian government has to cough up 31000 euros due to Morar’s mistake (we’ll assume it wasn’t intentional for the sake of argument). Meanwhile Morar is now a judge on the CCR, effectively Romania’s “Supreme Court”, the highest court in the land.
This isn’t even a one-time mistake (again, assuming that’s what it was) on Morar’s part. The most famous case is the arrest of Viorel Burzo (link in English), again at Morar’s orders, which ended up going to the European Court of Human Rights, which found in favor of Burzo and against Romania to the tune of 11,500 euros. So those two “mistakes” alone cost the Romanian taxpayer roughly 43,000 euros.
And so far absolutely nobody can explain the clusterfuck that is e-Romania 2. Back in 2009, when the economic crisis was quite severe and extensive borrowing from the IMF was underway, the government (under Emil Boc, now the mayor of Unicorn City) signed a deal for 50 million lei (roughly 12 million Euros) to set up an “e-government” site in which all government auctions and tenders would be online for everyone to see.
Having an open and transparent platform to see all government auctions and tenders (and which companies were bidding on them) is an essential part of democracy, as I wrote about in my article The Franchise. The EU specifically mentioned in their latest “report card” on Romania how disappointed they were that Romania does not have an e-gov site.
What happened is that in a completely non-transparent way, the Romanian government awarded the construction of this e-gov site in 2009 to a company called Omnilogic, who then proceeded to do absolutely nothing. Even the website itself isn’t working or online. The computers and hardware, not to mention training on the software to run the site, never happened. The whole project was supposed to have been finished in 2011 and here it is 2013 and it still doesn’t exist. Yet Omnilogic has been paid 37.2 million lei (nearly 9 million Euros) so far.
This isn’t a highway, which requires actual asphalt and bulldozers to build, but a frigging website. And yet year after year, these guys at Omnilogic kept getting paid without actually having to deliver anything. Prosecutors are now looking into whether to bring charges against Omnilogic but as far as I can tell there isn’t any corruption angle involving Romanian politicians (i.e. kickbacks). It just looks like Omnilogic (a rather large IT firm) got the contract and then didn’t deliver anything but kept getting paid anyway – sheer incompetence.
Similarly, Posta Romana (Romanian Post Office) paid 19.8 million euros for vehicles that it simply rented instead of purchased. In 2008, Posta Romana signed a six-year contract to pay this enormous sum just to rent vehicles from a private firm instead of buying them outright, so now the contract is about to end and the post office will be short on vehicles and have to spend even more money to acquire new ones. Again, there’s no allegation of corruption or kickbacks here, just sheer incompetence in how handle fleet management.
Likewise, the IMF has been pressuring the Romanian government to sell off state-owned enterprises for years and yet almost without exception, the Romanian government has somehow screwed this up in one way or another.
The recent sale of CFR’s freight division saw two international bidders drop out, complaining that the process was not transparent and overly rushed, and Hidroelectrica (the largest state-owned energy company) was forced to declare bankruptcy and enter into insolvency due to disastrous management. Meanwhile the IMF wants Romania to sell off Hidroelectric. You might also remember my post The Ballad of Cupru Min, when the state-owned copper company was about to be sold, with the “contracts signed” and then at the last moment something got screwed up. And a year later, CupruMin still hasn’t been sold off.
Personally I’m against all of these privatizations but the focus today is on incompetence.
Other examples abound. Year after year, only about half of Romania’s high school students pass the Bacalaureat, the national graduation exam (if you’re American, think SAT and if you’re British think O-levels or the GSCE). This is often cited as proof that Romania has successfully resisted the temptation to lower standards. But I have to wonder, what does it say about the educational system (which is organized almost exclusively on the national level) that the students aren’t prepared to pass this all-important series of exams? God knows the educational system in this country sucks on all levels.
And then of course there is the infamous Bechtel case, in which the government signed a billion euro contract with Bechtel to build a series of national highways back in 2003. Those highways still aren’t finished to this day (despite paying out hundreds of millions of euros) and so the Romanian government this year decided to cancel the contract:
My other concern is that the current government announced the final cancellation of the contract, at short notice, to be effective from Monday of last week. In fact the cancellation did not take place until two days later because the relevant government officials, unbelievably, made their announcement without having even the most basic understanding of the terms of the original contract with Bechtel. Crucially they did not even know if the penalties due to Bechtel, as a consequence of cancellation, ran to tens or hundreds of millions of Euro.
The really scary thing is that, in addition to the on-going disaster of the privatization program, no-one in the Romanian government seems to know or even care about how to do business with the large international companies who are vital in the development of the country’s infrastructure and industrial economic base. Not only was the high profile Bechtel contract held up for two years by the personal duel between two powerful (in Romania) men. But even the cancellation of the contract was postponed because the government was too incompetent to understand its terms.
Clearly there were some hearty laughs back at Bechtel headquarters, knowing that they were about to squeeze Romania twice – first by getting paid to barely do any work on some highways and then secondly by getting paid enormous cancellation fees.
I’ve already written about how Romania incompetently manages its revenue from excise taxes from cigarettes and continually gets punked by the American government, using everyone from Dinu Patriciu to Emil Boc to Teodor Stolojan to Traian Basescu as snitches, pressuring Romania to buy fighter planes it doesn’t need and can’t afford and the fucked up English on Romanian government websites and in official correspondence with the EU.
On a smaller scale, I’ve written about horrendously shitty customer service and hostile incompetence at UPC, a major ISP and cable TV provider here, how political posters are left up for years, how most Romanian bloggers suck and are unfunny to boot, about how thousands of people are annually left sweltering in the heat in Busteni, about rude service I encountered at a local computer store, about how courier companies can’t find my house, about how drunken plumbers couldn’t fix a sink and about how Cluj officials can’t even bother to learn diplomatic protocol for a high-level visit by the ambassador of an important ally.
At some point with EU funds not getting absorbed, corrupt politicians not getting arrested, roads not getting built, medicines stolen, doctors having to take cash from patients, graduation exams not getting passed, potholes not getting fixed, snow not getting cleared, pensions not getting paid, wacko fascists signing deals with ruling coalitions, referendums passing and getting ignored, presidents suspended but never removed from office, a drunken buffoon being the country’s most successful promoter, plagiarists going unpunished, superstitious morons panicking in Timisoara, religious fanatics who don’t read the Bible but get 30 million euros to build an enormous church, animals left to starve to death in ghastly conditions, a clusterfuck policy on what to do with the Gypsies as well as chaos, confusion and corruption in the judiciary, only a combination of colossal inertia, EU charity and Mugur Isarescu is preventing this country from sliding into a morass of staggering poverty.
And so we’re all left waiting for someone – anyone – to step forward and deploy the Golden Cup and clean up this country.