A number of historic buildings on Calea Victoriei – Bucharest’s most famous street – have been defaced this week, their ground floor exteriors painted in a number of colours. As we write, four buildings have been reported sullied. The city council has pleaded ignorance, but one painter told reporters on Wednesday that he had been sent by the council. The plot thickened still further yesterday when council staff were snapped washing the fresh paint off one of the vandalised buildings, also – according to the people doing it – at the council’s bidding. Opposition councilors have called for an inquiry.
It turns out that the whitewashing is part of Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea’s plan to clean up and decorate the centre of the city for Easter. A huge egg has already appeared in the middle of Piata Universitatii, while bunnies and Easter eggs hang across Bulevardul Magheru and throughout the Old Town. Last night, trying desperately to dig herself out of a hole she claimed that her orders had been simply to ‘clean’ the buildings: she had not suggested that they be painted.
In March Firea made clear that she was unhappy with the amount of graffiti on Calea Victoriei; part of a rant in which she also expressed disappointment at how many shops on the street stood empty, not realising that most stand empty due to post-Colectiv legislation which forbids commercial activity in buildings considered a high earthquake risk. Perhaps if the council invested in the reconditioning some of these high-risk buildings then the shops might reopen. Alas, in this year’s budget there is almost no money for such things (more on Bucharest’s spending plans for 2017 later).
It has been something of a busy week for our delightful mayor.
On Tuesday we were treated to the genuinely fabulous spectacle of Firea explaining the dangers of the so-called Blue Whale internet suicide craze to a bewildered audience of press-ganged 12-year-olds. For those of you unaware of the non-subject that is Blue Whale, you have missed nothing. It is a viral meme that has been blamed – with little more than ‘somebody on the internet said so’ type evidence – for the deaths of more than 130 (mainly Russian) teenagers. The story got picked up a couple of weeks ago by Romanian news channel Digi 24 (which should know better) and quickly became a nationwide moral panic.
Enter the pink lady.
Last week, Firea said that she would be personally spearheading a campaign designed to raise awareness of the dangers of the Blue Whale phenomenon, heading into Bucharest’s schools to talk directly with those children most at risk. That’s why she and Interior Minister Carmen Dan – along with CRBL, one of those dreadful Romanian rap acts – were at a Bucharest middle school on Tuesday.
Adevarul has put together a rather good montage of what was quite frankly a surreal event:
We know what you are thinking: What the fuck did I just watch?
It is tricky to know where to begin. First off, there’s the obvious joke about how could spending an hour in a room with Firea possibly make kids less likely to top themselves? Then there are questions about the wisdom of bringing along a rapper to belt out lyrics such as ’empty glasses don’t look good/fill them up/it’s early but my eyes are red’ and ‘fetele sexy si fetele rele vor na na’ – a phrase we assume nobody needs translated? (Firea by the way called this ‘quality music’). Meantime, we found the serious, earnest conversation between Firea and Gabriel Mutu – Mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 6 – most amusing, and we loved the way the school’s director almost pees herself with excitement as she rushes to greet Firea.
Far less funny is the sight of Firea, Dan and hundreds of schoolkids in matching caps and t-shirts supplied by and glorifying the city council. Or Firea standing in front of children and telling them ‘death lurks in computers.’ Or the sight of two kids dressed in traditional costume handing Firea flowers: Romanians of a certain age would have no doubt had some nasty flashbacks. Who was saying just a few weeks ago that children should not be used for political ends? Watch out too for Firea fumbling for words when asked an actual question by a non-fawning journalist.
The children of Sector 6 saved from the blue whale, Gabi decided to go and spend her money. Or rather, our money.
Yes, Bucharest’s €1.1 billion 2017 budget was finally brought before the compliant city council this week: it’s good news for patriarchs who like big bells, less good for anyone else.
Less than two per cent of spending is going towards investment. By contrast Cluj (whose mayor is former prime minister Emil Boc) is committing more than 30 per cent of its budget to infrastructure investment. No wonder the Transylvanian city is going places while Bucharest drifts towards the abyss. Traffic management gets a paltry 400,000 lei, and there is enough money for just seven new buses, one tram and one trolleybus. There is, however, almost €13 million for the new cathedral (complete with a €0.5 million bell featuring the face of the Romanian patriarch) and €6 million for new statues though.
As should be clear to just about everyone by now, Firea has very little interest in the people or city of Bucharest. She has one thing in mind: Romania’s 2019 presidential election. Everything she does between now and then will be part of that election campaign: keeping up appearances, and keeping the PSD’s Bucharest machine wealthy and happy.
Unfortunately for Firea, Bucharest looks increasingly as though it will be her political grave, not her springboard to greater things. The city is already at breaking point: traffic and public transport in particular are in worse shape than at any time we can remember. Air quality is the poorest of all European Union capitals. There is a shortage of spaces in kindergardens. Schools are over-subscribed and class sizes the highest for decades. Then there are the capital’s hospitals: poorly managed open wounds ripe for infection.
None of these problems are exclusively Firea’s doing; Bucharest has been poorly run for years. The problem is that she simply doesn’t seem willing to take any real measures to remedy them. She needs to, for her sake as much as ours. For unless she starts taking her job seriously, Bucharest will explode long before 2019 and she will be as toxic as that pink dress of hers.