It’s been a bad year for Alina Gorghiu, leader of the Romanian Liberal Party (PNL). A shoo-in to be the country’s first female prime minister this time last year she has spent the past 12 months showing just why she is utterly unfit for the job. Leaving aside accusations that her law firm did business with the state she turned out to be an atrociously poor leader of the opposition, her stance on certain issues at times indistinguishable from that of the hated prime minister Victor Ponta and his infinitely corrupt PSD. She did little to convince ordinary Romanians that the PNL is cut from different cloth to the PSD (albeit a difficult task, given that it isn’t) and as a result her party, once certain of a clear victory in next year’s parliamentary elections, is now as much of a busted flush as the PSD itself. A belated effort to clean up the party over the past month or so (she plans to prevent anyone under investigation for corruption standing on the PNL’s ticket) has so far fooled very few. It’s all far too little, far too late.
Anyway, in the same way that a broken clock is right twice a day, Gorghiu did get something right this week: ‘Bucharest is in a shocking state,’ she said ‘and whoever becomes mayor next year has one hell of a job to do.’ (She then went on to say, using a rather unfortunate turn of phrase, that the city council needed a ‘bomb’ placing underneath it. You can insert your own jokes about certain areas of the city being vastly improved by heavy bombing).
Bomb or not, nobody can dispute Gorghiu’s claim that Bucharest is falling apart at the seams. Four of the seven mayors elected in 2012 have been arrested (Sorin Oprescu, Andrei Chiliman, Marean Vanghelie and Cristian Popescu Piedone) for corruption. More overcrowded than ever the city’s long suffering infrastructure is struggling to cope with the sheer number of people who need to use it. Public transport – once merely bad – is now shockingly awful, and traffic worse than ever. The amount of time people spend getting from one place to another must surely be having a negative impact on the city’s output. Billions of euros must be lost every year due to people being stuck in traffic. And yet given the Byzantine way in which Bucharest is run, it is difficult to see how even a mayor with the very best of intentions could achieve a great deal. Like the bloated Romanian state itself, Bucharest’s endless layers of administration need annihilating. Doing away with the six sectors and handing all power to a single mayor and a single council would be a good start.
So who wants the job? Well, the first confirmed nomination is Cristian Busoi of the PNL. Currently an MEP, Busoi is a former head of the Romanian State Health Insurance Company (CNAS), which he ran from 2007-14. One of the most bureaucratic and inefficient government agencies in existence, Busoi’s inability to reform CNAS does not suggest that he is cut out to radically change Bucharest.
The PSD meantime have yet to formally announce their candidate, although they did this week float the name of Gabriela Firea-Pandele, one of the nastiest shits in Romanian politics. (Given how crowded a field that is – up against some tough competition – that’s an impressive achievement). You may remember that during last year’s presidential election campaign – in which she served as Ponta’s spokesperson – Firea claimed that Klaus Iohannis did not have a ‘complete family’, as he had no children. A total bitch, married to Florentin Pandele (mayor of one of Bucharest’s least salubrious suburbs, Voluntari) we can’t imagine the PSD would be that stupid to put her forward as a candidate. Then again, this is the PSD we’re talking about.
As we have said before, it is Nicusor Dan who will be getting our vote, more for his commitment to transparency and the fight against corruption than anything else. We also like Dan because he really, really pisses off nationalists. More here.
The joker in the Bucharest pack is Traian Basescu. He has yet to formally state that he is not interested in once again becoming mayor of the city he ran – not entirely without success – from 2000 to 2004. His candidacy would blow the race wide apart, not least as the electoral system being used will, in all likeliness, be first past the post. (The government of Dacian Ciolos appears to have entirely forgotten its early promise to reintroduce two rounds of voting for mayoral elections). Even with the current level of anger at the zombie parties, it is all but impossible that Basescu would win, however. The most likely outcome of a Basescu candidacy is a split in the anti-PSD vote, which would hand the mayor’s office to Firea-Pandele (or whichever talking gorilla the PSD stands for election).
Next year’s Romanian budget was drafted last weekend, and at first glance it’s a decent enough document that marks a subtle yet distinct move away from the populism of Ponta’s administration. Although the budget incorporates the 10 per cent increase in public sector pay that was Ponta’s final act of government – as well as a reduction in VAT to 20 per cent – a proposed increase in the minimum wage (from 1050 lei per month to 1200 lei) has been ditched. Pensions, however, will be increased by five per cent from January 1, 2016.
Most controversially, the budget has reduced to zero (from 170 million lei – €37 million – in 2015) the government’s contribution to the construction of new churches (in particular the mammoth cathedral being built next to Casa Poporului in Bucharest). Having initially appeared to backtrack on that part of the budget after criticism from certain parts (although certainly not all) of the Romanian Orthodox Church (BOR), Ciolos stated quite clearly on Wednesday that there would indeed be no money for new churches. ‘Given the state of the country’s finances, we can’t afford to allocate any money for the building of churches,’ he said. ‘The government will only step in with finance when it has the means to do so.’
It’s worth noting at this point that the government has allocated the BOR 315 million lei (€70 million) in the budget, the vast majority of which will be spent on the salaries of the clergy. The BOR is also – like any charity in Romania, and indeed most countries – exempt from income and wealth taxes. We have no problem with that, by the way (no charity or NGO should pay tax) although we would expect the church – like any charity – to make public full details of its spending, down to the last leu. Indeed, were it to voluntarily do so, it might get some of its fiercer critics off its back. As somebody far wittier than us (Jim Hacker) once said: ‘The ways of the Lord may be mysterious, but I see no need for the church accounts to be the same.’
As an example of what can be done, here is the Church of England’s annual report for 2014. If the BOR were to publish something similar, it would be doing itself a huge favour.
Excellent news from Brussels this week where Romania’s European Commissioner, Corina Cretu of the PSD (pictured at the top of the page) is doing the country proud. Not all that keen on work, Cretu allegedly has a tendency to ‘combine official trips with leisure travel and to ask staff to perform personal tasks, such as doing laundry, shopping for groceries and chauffeuring family members.’ No wonder eight have her 19 staff have resigned over the past 12 months. Cretu also has one of the worst attendance records of all 28 commissioners and reportedly avoids meetings on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. Still, at least she is available for two days a week. Oh, and on those rare occasions she does turn up at work, Cretu apparently likes to smoke in her office, despite an institution-wide ban. When she was first told she couldn’t smoke in the commission building, Cretu allegedly replied: ‘In Romania, ministers can do whatever they want.’
The full case against Cretu is here. It’s well worth reading the whole piece. You will be delightfully appalled. A protege of Ion Iliescu, Cretu has been touted as a possible PSD presidential candidate in 2019.
Staying with the subject of smoking, those of us who long to go out in Bucharest for a drink or a meal and not smell like an ashtray at the end of the night will have to wait a little longer to get our wish.
A law which bans smoking just about everywhere (including restaurants, bars, clubs and cafes) was held up in Romania’s parliament again this week after the head of the lower houses’s health commission, Florin Buicu (PSD of course) failed to turn up for a meeting of the commission he chairs. Why is this a big deal? Well, an amendment to the law needs to be OK-ed by the commission before parliament can vote on it. Having kept the other members of the commission (as well as a number of representatives of clean air NGOs) waiting for over two hours, Buicu announced that he would not be coming by SMS. ‘Next week’, he texted. The chances of the law being passed before the Christmas break are now as slim as a Virginia.
It is in cases such as this that the government should use emergency ordinances to push through crucial legislation, bypassing what is becoming an increasingly despicable parliament altogether.
Romania’s heroic anti-corruption agency, the DNA, made a number of arrests this week as part of an investigation into illegal land and property dealings which have defrauded the tax authorities of as much as €140 million. Amongst those arrested are: Dan Andronic, the owner of one of Romania’s few remaining newspapers, Evenimentul Zilei; Remus Truica, corrupt former prime minister Adrian Nastase’s chief of staff; and Marius Marcovici, once an adviser to another former prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu. Also wanted by the DNA for questioning is the comical Prince Paul. Paul (real name Paul Lambrino) was conveniently taken ill however while travelling to the DNA’s offices and later admitted to hospital.
In other DNA news, its boss, the amazingly wonderful Laura Codruta Kovesi, expressed concern on Thursday at the manner in which convicted criminals can substantially reduce their sentences by writing scientific books. ‘The law needs to be changed,’ Kovesi said. ‘Those with scientific leanings can just as well write their books outside of prison.’
Romania’s National Institute of Statistics (INS) announced this week that the country’s population continues to fall, and is now at around 19 million, its lowest level for 50 years. The INS estimates that Romania’s will be home to around 14 million by 2050, which is probably not far off its optimal population.