On Friday 30 October, a fire broke out during a rock concert taking place at the Colectiv club in Bucharest. As a result, 51* people died and over 150 needed medical treatment; some of them are still in critical condition. In the course of the next few days, the media discovered multiple irregularities; the club didn’t have the necessary authorisations to host such big crowds, and it also didn’t respect several security provisions; it had only one exit and was built out of cheap and inflammable materials. After three days of national mourning, during which survivors shared their stories about the incapacity of the state to manage the situation and not one official took responsibility for the tragedy, on Tuesday evening Romanians took to the streets of major cities to ask for a reset of the political scene and of the corrupt system the political parties have built.
“Corruption kills” is the main motto of the thousands of protesters in Romania these days.
Romanian FutureLabbers Doru Toma and Doris Manu explain the situation from their perspective answering some key questions.
Doru, how did we go from a fire in a club to the resignation of the Prime Minister?
One has to understand that the tragedy in the Colectiv club was not just an accident but an inevitable event, due to so many things that have been going wrong in Romanian society. On Saturday at midday, the day after the fire, the Prime Minister declared three days of mourning and people in the capital gathered for a silent march on Sunday at midday to pay their respects to the victims. During these three days, not a single public figure, politician or head of institution showed any kind of involvement, feelings of responsibility or the intention to step down from his/her position. The media found out about several irregularities in the licensing procedures for the Colectiv club, which had been intentionally overlooked. The mayor of the 4th District in Bucharest felt the need to mention he was “covered” by official papers and that his office was not to blame.
For many Romanians, this was the last straw; the way politics and business is being conducted in Romania has to stop once and for all. It’s no coincidence that one of the main slogans used on social media and in the streets is “Corruption kills”. Romanian people finally realised this is about them and their future, and that the country cannot go on like this.
On Tuesday evening, around 30.000 people went out into the streets of Bucharest to have their voices heard. And although not many were able to shout and scream, one could see their commitment and stubbornness to fight until the end. “The day we give in is the day we die” – this line, belonging to Goodbye to Gravity (the band singing in Colectiv when the fire started) echoes what people are feeling nowadays: it’s now or never and we won’t give up that easy.
The resignation of PM Victor Ponta was a surprise for many but this came in a specific context, after he had been charged for corruption by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) on 13 July and after he had lost the chairmanship of the Social-Democratic Party on 11 October.
Doru, why are people still in the streets after Ponta resigned?
“You can’t buy us with a resignation or two”. This is another major slogan used in the street demonstrations. This time people are not protesting for a simple – and easy to achieve – goal; their fury is not directed against one politician, a specific interest group or political party. The tragedy in the Colectiv club was possible due to several endemic issues that are present at all levels of Romanian society, from the corruption in the public administration to the lack of respect for the rule of law, and the complacent mentality still prevalent in Romania.
After three days of silence and mourning, people felt the need to voice their anger and fury. In a way, this anger is also directed to all citizens in this country; the people in the street demand a reset of the political class and new rules guiding our society, but we all need to change the way we act.
Doris, Romania has been praised by the EU as one of the most successful countries in tackling corruption. Judging from the protests, it seems that the population feels that not enough has been done. What is your personal assessment?
In the past few years, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) became one of the most appreciated institutions in the country due to its delivering concrete results in fighting corruption. Numerous former politicians, current members of the Parliament and mayors, including the mayor of Bucharest, have been put under investigation or have been arrested because of their involvement in cases of corruption and/or money laundering and abuse of power.
But at times it seemed that this institution could not go against specific politicians – deputies who got their colleagues in the Parliament to vote against lifting their immunity; mayors who are so feared that no one wants to testify against them. Therefore, the population feels that more has to be done and so it demands a radical change of the political class.
My opinion is that fighting corruption by investigating and imprisoning corrupt politicians and civil servants alone is not enough. Necessary of course, but not sufficient. Corruption is so ingrained in Romanian society that the next generation to hold public office will end up being as corrupt as the current one, if we do not go beyond repression. To significantly reduce corruption in Romania, I would say there is a need for more investment in the education of young people, for a strong civil society and for independent and professional media that can always keep an eye on the authorities.
Doris, how is the attitude of young Romanians towards the ongoing events? Many young people were at the Colectiv club; is there an age-related element to these protests?
Young Romanians have shown unprecedented feats of solidarity and support for the victims of the accident. From the first few hours after the tragedy, hundreds of young people donated blood, helped identify the victims, raised donations for the wounded and shared messages of support on social networks. Anger burst and many went out into the streets to protest against what they see as the main cause of the fire: negligence, dishonesty and a lack of responsibility on the part of the club owners and the authorities who provided the club with a licence. In Bucharest and other Romanian cities, the protests are dominated by young people. The calls for demonstrations are shared on social networks where young people are the most active. Role models of the young generation, such as popular rock stars, attended the demonstrations and many of their young fans did the same. One of the most shared photos from the demonstrations is that of an old man holding up a sign on which he wrote: ‘’Our dear children, forgive us, we made mistakes for 26 years. Only you can win the fight against corruption. We are proud of you. Mom and Dad.’’
Doru, you took part in the protests; what was your impression and what would you say was/is the prevailing feeling? Was it anger, or hope?
First of all, this is an authentic protest. People were not coerced and decided to go out onto the streets out of their own free will, not only to show their respect to the victims of the tragedy but also to prevent such a terrible accident from ever happening again. The reasons they are on the streets are so diverse that they cannot be put under a single umbrella. What’s more important is to understand that everyone is fed up with the lack of responsibility of the political class and the public administration, the small and big corruption governing so many areas of activity, the lack of political will when it comes to assets recovery, the unfair electoral law, and the lack of resources and personnel in the medical system; the list goes on.
Doru, how (if at all) do you think that these protests/events will affect Romanian society and political life? What changes will they bring and what changes do you wish for?
Hard to tell. At this point, the president has several options and we shall see what he chooses – a technocrat or a political figure with or without the support of the main parties in the parliament. What is actually important right now is that people protesting all around the country wish for a new beginning, and a political system based on honesty, transparency, responsibility and courage – of the political class and of all relevant actors in the society.
We can only hope that this sad tragedy has the power to change a whole nation, and that it will be a lesson none of us will forget. Each and every Romanian should commit him- or herself to act in a more responsible manner. The more we do this, the less corruption and irregularities we will have around us. Laws are not just written down on paper, they also have to be applied and respected, by politicians and citizens alike.
*The number of victims has been updated as the death toll increased since the publishing of this article.