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You know, after about six years of covering scandals, failures, problems, crimes, the media, and other sources of misery in Romania (and to a lesser extent, the Republic of Moldova), I’ve lately found myself thinking about the bigger picture.
If you narrow your focus on the scandal of the day, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. There’s cause for fresh outrage every single day. Even fabulous websites like Positive News Romania are restricted to stories about Romanians winning some local contest, and half the time they are Romanians are residing abroad. About the only other source of positivity is the cute, interesting, refreshing and sometimes thought-provoking stories of foreigners traveling in Romania.
Is there nothing else but this? Just daily scandals and lovely Instagram photos from tourists? A few recipes, traditional folkloric dances, and a smattering of festivals, concerts and holidays?
Instead of focusing on the symptoms of Romania hurtling towards the edge of the cliff, lately I’ve been thinking more about the etiology. Why is a culture and people that I love so much perennially result in a country that is so poor, corrupt and constantly saddled with bad leaders?
The Locus of Control
Imagine that you and another person are both hungry and both want to go eat at a local restaurant. For the purposes of this thought experiment, we’ll assume that you both have plenty of money, you both enjoy eating out, and that transportation isn’t an issue. The question before us today is: how do you decide which restaurant to go to?
Whether the other person is your spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, friend, family member or other kind of relationship certainly has a bearing. But choosing a restaurant is a real world example that I’m sure everyone reading this has gone through.
Let’s map out the possible responses to the question of how you and another person choose a restaurant:
- You decide, and the other person agrees;
- The other person decides, and you agree;
- You both have strong opinions about where to go and battle for supremacy; or
- Neither of you can decide and it takes a long time to arrive at a decision.
In the case of #1, then you have the locus of control. You are the one who not only can make the decision but has the self-confidence, authority and skills to make the decision on where to eat.
In the case of #2, the other person has the locus of control.
In the case of #3, both of you vie for supremacy to decide who has the authority and rank to make the decision.
But in the case of #4, both people initially are abrogating the ability to decide. You’re not sure where to go, or what you want, and other person isn’t sure either.
To make it even simpler, here’s #1 in a conversation format:
You: Let’s go to restaurant X.
Here’s #2 in a conversation format:
You: I’m not sure. Where do you want to go?
Them: Let’s go to restaurant X.
Here’s #3 in a conversation format:
You: Let’s go to restaurant X.
Them: No, let’s go to restaurant Y.
20 minutes later
You: Fine, we’ll go to restaurant Z.
Them: Fine. But I get to pick next time!
Here’s #4 in a conversation format:
You: I don’t know. Where do you want to go?
Them: I don’t know. Where do you want to go?
20 minutes later
You: Maybe we should just stay home and eat toast.
Them: Fine. I’m not hungry anymore anyway.
A Government Of The People?
Now let’s apply this framework to the political process. Democracy is a complicated beast, especially because the Greek word we all use (demo = people + krato = government) refers to something more akin to a lottery where only rich white man could participate than modern day representative democracies.
What then, besides voting once every few years, is the responsibility of an adult citizen in a democracy? And what is the responsibility of an elected politician?
Instead of deciding which restaurant to go to, let’s focus on a real political event like the Colectiv fire at the end of 2015. Ultimately killing several dozen people, mostly high-value young people but also a Gypsy woman, the fire revealed several serious problems, including lack of government enforcement of fire safety standards, a lack of fire safety standard regulations, and corruption.
What then, is the process by which decisions were made as a result of this event?
History tells us that the people’s reaction was to march in the streets and advocate reforms across the board, not just concerning fire safety standards in a single Bucharest city district. Concurrently with bodies in the street was a torrent of activity across social media, particularly Facebook (still the reigning champ of social media in this part of the world).
In other words, the people took control of the situation in two ways: street demonstrations and active participation on social media.
The government, for its part, did two things as well. One, the prime minister (Victor Ponta) resigned, as did a local politician who represented the district of Bucharest where the fire occurred. The resignation of the prime minister automatically set in motion a restructuring of the government. At this point, there were several options available, including holding new elections or choosing a new prime minister from amongst the political parties in power.
But the option that the government chose was the installation of a “technocrat” government, unelected “statesmen” (and one or two women) who were never chosen by anyone to lead the people, helmed by Dacian Ciolos. Despite a lack of any popular support whatsoever, this government is still in power and will remain so for a full year until parliamentary elections are held in late 2016.
People: We want reforms and we want them now!
Government: We switched some people and we will promise to talk about reforms. Now go home and leave us alone.
The question before us then is: were there any other choices available in how to respond to this important event (the Colectiv fire)?
The government had a number of options, including overhauling fire safety laws, conducting an inquiry into what happened, punishing the club owners, punishing the government officials who allowed the situation to become so dangerous, etc. But few people reading this are members of the Romanian government, so let’s focus on what the average citizen could have done. And what a more empowered citizenry is capable of.
Not necessarily concerning the Colectiv fire, but in other circumstances I’ve queried my Romanian friends about their options in participating in the democratic process.
By far, the most common response I get is “march in the streets”. Whether it’s about an unpopular trade treaty, the sacking of a health minister, the possibility of gold mining in Rosia Montana, or in response to a deadly fire, the answer that comes most readily is always “take to the streets”. Protesting in the streets is considered the right and honorable thing to do, as well as being the only “effective” response possible.
Activism on social media is commonplace but is often derided. Even though politicians regularly respond to criticism on social media, most Romanians consider activism on social media to be cheap, superficial, and largely ineffective.
But is there anything else? If you’re Romanian and reading this, stop and think for a second. Is there anything else you, an ordinary person without a million dollars or powerful friends, can do to influence the government besides a) marching in the street and possibly b) being active on social media?
If you give yourself a few minutes to think about it, you might come up with this answer: vote for a different political party in the next election. And that’s valid. But what else?
Consider this option: directly contacting your elected representative and telling him (or very rarely, her) how you feel. For most people reading this, that suggestion is not just revolutionary but downright scary.
Hidden In Plain Sight
Not too long before I and the Romanian government had a parting of the ways, I set out to go find a locally elected official in Cluj-Napoca. I was a bit taken aback when it turned out to be a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
All members of parliament in Romania are given money to have an office in their district (the city/place that they represent). Thanks to endemic corruption, this money is often used for personal purposes and the purported local “office” exists in name only, usually kept locked around the clock and never used for its intended purpose.
In my particular case, I found out the MPs address from their website. The address was a bit hard to find thanks to the peculiar Romanian system of huge blocuri of apartments all containing the same street number. So while I found the general area easy enough (number X on street Y), I had to find which Roman numeral and “scara” (literally “stairwell”) was the right one in order to find this MPs office. There were no signs outside or plaques announcing that an MPs office was located in this particular bloc.
After questioning a number of neighbors nearby, I finally found the right entrance. And a friendly resident let me in the locked door (that uses the intercom or interfon system) when nobody responded to my buzzes. I knocked on the MPs door (which did have a small sign announcing its occupant) but nobody was there despite the fact that it was the middle of the day.
I can’t tell you whether that office was a dummy facade or whether the MP was out of town and had no assistants/employees working that day or what the deal was. What I do know is that it was extraordinarily difficult to make contact with this individual in real life (i.e. not via Facebook). They had a personal website, which not every MP does, and I could’ve written an email but there were no “office hours” listed or telephone number for me to call.
I’ve never been eligible to vote in Romania but if I couldn’t find a way to contact “my” MP then how could anyone else?
Now I haven’t lived in Timisoara for about 10 years, but I thought it’d be fun to imagine that I were a citizen of that county eligible to vote, now represented by Florica Birsasteanu, a guy I picked at random simply because his name is so funky and difficult to pronounce :P
If this was your MP, how would you be able to contact him? Well, he does have two email addresses, one an official parliamentary one (email@example.com) and one that I have to guess is a personal one (firstname.lastname@example.org). But what if you are elderly or don’t have a computer. How could you contact him?
He’s got an address (Splaiul Tudor Vladimirescu nr. 26 in Timisoara) and both a fax and office number. Oddly, he also has a “contact person” listed named Doru Guga (another fun name) with a mobile phone. So far, so good. But what are his office hours? Is there any way of knowing when (if ever) he will be there if you want to talk to him? And who exactly is Doru Guga?
I’m about 1000 kilometers from Timisoara at the moment but it doesn’t take long to figure out that this office address is actually just the local headquarters of the PSD (Florica’s party) and that there’s a huge controversy over how the PSD acquired the building.
As for who Doru Guga is, I have no idea. I know there was once a player for Timisoara’s football (USA: soccer) club with that name. But a search for Doru’s mobile phone number connects to a real estate firm named Pakrido. Is Doru a real estate agent? And there’s a second use for that phone number, a company called “Guga and Chalaf”, also doing business in Timisoara as a real estate company.
I can’t say for certain sitting here at my keyboard but it looks like Mr. Guga has far more on his plate than fielding phone calls from Birsasteanu’s constituents.
Mind you, this is just one guy that I picked at random. But you can see from this example that it’s quite difficult to find a way to contact this guy except for via email that may or may not be answered, or a fax machine. But who still has one of those? Heck, it’s even hard to find Florica at his place of employment, the Romanian parliament, as he rarely, if ever, casts a vote on legislation and yet lies to reporters about where he actually goes during his days in Bucharest.
Despite all of this, the guy is running for mayor of Timisoara in the upcoming June elections. So for the people who live in that city, being able to contact this guy and make sure he represents their interests is pretty important.
But how many people have ever done that? Or could, even if they wanted to?
Squaring the Circle
As I wrote about yesterday, a truly democratic experience in Romania lasted a grand total of six months. Social media didn’t exist in those days but the people took to the streets, civic groups were formed, countless political parties were allowed to participate, and the common people understood that it was they who had to decide and be responsible for their own government.
Sadly, that grand experiment was crushed by the Mineriad and has never recovered. The security apparatus was never disbanded, only rebranded. The people in power prior to 1989 (with the exception of two members of the Ceausescu family) stayed in power. Political power was consolidated by laws mandating only giant parties could compete. Government media was once again censored and controlled, and the private media became a black hole controlled by mafia kingpins.
And so, without anyone consciously realizing it, the locus of control was ceded to the same small group of elites who had always had it. Even the one mode of expression that had always existed, protests in the street, was slowly eroded. Since 1990, the largest street “demonstrations” in Romania have been for the annual lighting of the Christmas tree in Bucharest.
Add to the mix the joining of the European Union, which allowed the smartest, most ambitious and best-educated Romanians to emigrate elsewhere, with antiquated laws about voting effectively blocking Romanians from voting if they live abroad. If an activist Romanian lives in Germany or France but can’t vote, how then are they to influence the government? Like a post on Facebook?
Romania’s last, best hope, oversight and reforms instituted by the European Union as a prerequisite for membership, has largely failed. There is no external force guiding Romania for the betterment of its people and the levers of power have largely been removed from the hands of the Romanian people.
Welcome to the Hotel Romanifornia
What options then, are left? Flee to another country with better living standards? Stay in your country and be crushed by mafia-like political parties that rig votes and laws to squash any organized political opposition? Attempt to get your voice heard in a media space crowded with vanity 24-hour faux “news” channels? Try to fruitlessly contact your local MPs and city counselors when they hide behind fake offices that are never open? Urge busy people to take to the streets when you need to first get a permit from the city to hold a march?
Facing all this, there’s not much left for an activist citizen to do but retreat to Facebook and scribble angry “status updates” and like blog posts that mirror your frustration.
Romanians have often told me, “We have the government that we deserve.” But sometimes I wonder about that.
With an unelected government in place, a parliament that’s illegally too big, a sitting president who has been convicted for corruption and fraud, a heavily restricted voting process that blocks expats and forces people to travel to their “official residence” to participate, a lack of access to the traditional media space, and the near impossibility of contacting government officials in person, I truly have to ask if Romania is even a democracy at all.