In September, I was invited to Romania to observe the training being conducted by units of the Romanian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MAI) and Ministry of National Defense (MoND). The training was to be performed in conjunction with American forces and in preparation for Romania’s participation with NATO forces at the Trident Juncture joint training exercise. Romania is an ally who has deployed troops in support of American forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, is a NATO partner, a host to several American bases, and is a point of regional strategic confidence on the Black Sea.

Romania is also host to the U.S. European Command’s Joint Task Force East (JTF-East) at Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) Air Base. MK Air Base is located in a region of Romania called Dobrogea, and is approximately 15 miles from Constanta—Romania’s largest port, located on the Black Sea. Nearby at the U.S. Naval Support Facility Deveselu, a portion of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System is watching the horizon. NATO is currently constructing a multinational divisional headquarters expected to be operational by late 2016.

The new NATO facility will be a geographically separate ancillary to the current NATO Force Integration Unit (NIFU) facility. Romania has accommodated a growing number of U.S.-led training exercises in Romania to promote multinational force communication and evolution, as well as show of force exercises to deter Russian belligerence. There is a truly warranted and valid need for this defensive posturing in Romania by America and NATO: Russia has become increasingly aggressive, and such exercises help to safeguard the alliance’s eastern flank against further aggression.

I arrived in Bucharest, Romania’s capital on the 17th of October. Unfortunately, I learned almost immediately that I would need to make a change of plans, as those who invited me had disappeared. On the very day of my arrival, the (now, former) Prime Minister Victor Ponta and a headhunter’s bounty of the staff of the ministries I was invited by were formally arrested on a cornucopia of corruption-related charges. Their combined formal indictment came on the 15th, but I was off the grid in Transnistria by way of Moldova, and I missed the headline.

Regardless, I would have ignored it. Corruption is extensive in Romania and those in power often walk away shortly after the charges are presented. As the charges mounted and appeared to be in line with my assumption, I headed off to Arad for a joint U.S./Romanian exercise, then to Geamăna for our SOFREP Halloween Special Report, to the Transfăgărășan highway, off the map to Bucharest, and to pursue other adventures.

The Romanian ex-prime minister was still in denial throughout my stay. I left Bucharest in the early morning hours of the 31st of October, and as I was checking out of my hotel on the far edge of Sector 5, I caught glances of a fire shown on the lobby television. I asked the clerk what was going on, and she said dismissively, “I’m not sure. Maybe some kids started a fire.” It was not until I was back to the U.S. that I realized the impact of what I briefly witnessed on my way out of Romania.

A few days passed. I kept up communication with my friends in Bucharest about what was happening, and I learned that Victor Ponta had finally decided that it was time to resign. It was the 4th of November. His resignation followed after approximately 20,000 people gathered peacefully in the streets night after night after the day of the fire to protest government corruption.

The drive of the Romanian people to make a stand did not come from Victor Ponta, and his political career is simply a deserving causality of the anti-corruption protest. The protests were in response to a nightclub fire that claimed the lives of 49 people and injured approximately 180 more. It took this tragedy to expose further flaws in the current Romanian government. This unfortunate incident, according to voices in the streets, was due to negligence brought on by way of widespread corruption.

In late October, before the calamity, an installation and inspection of pyrotechnics for a special performance was conducted by the nightclub owners and the municipal authorities of Sector 4 of the city of Bucharest. The nightclub passed with flying colors. They were able to circumvent an inspection permit authorization by the fire department due to rampant corruption and dereliction of civic duty.

This latest devastating failure of a corrupt system has drawn the people into the streets and squares to express their grief and disappointment. They are standing together to send a clear message to the Romanian government: They are tired of corruption.

The crowd remain committed on the Fifth night protests at Kilometrul 0, Bulevardul Ion C. Brătianu, București, Romania - Image courtesy of Marius Sfetea
The crowd remains committed on the fifth night of protests at Kilometrul 0, Bulevardul Ion C. Brătianu, București, Romania. Image courtesy of Marius Sfetea.

The negligently installed pyrotechnics ignited the insulation foam décor on the ceiling and immediately set the club ablaze. The 400 patrons inside, who had gathered for a free concert by the rock band Goodbye to Gravity, reacted as expected and initiated a mad dash toward the single exit.

The resulting funnel trapped many inside. The owners of the club have been arrested on account of their disregard for the safety of their patrons, charged with manslaughter. They may face additional penalties given that the event was beyond the building’s maximum capacity, the building itself lacked emergency exits, and in light of the manipulation of a permit to hold the event. It is unclear what accountability the owners of the club may face in regards to liability for the deaths and injuries from that night. The city officials who were involved in the installation, inspection, and approval of the pyrotechnics have also been arrested, according to local sources.

People light candles outside a nightclub, where a fire broke out on Friday, in Bucharest, Romania October 31, 2015 - Image courtesy of Reuters.
People light candles outside a nightclub where a fire broke out in Bucharest, Romania, on October 31, 2015. Image courtesy of Reuters.

Safety was compromised because of corruption, a habitual problem in Romania, which has driven public anger. The demonstrators’ calls have demanded that the prime minister at the time, Victor Ponta, step down. Already facing charges of government corruption for fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering, Mr. Ponta, while not directly responsible for the nightclub fire, is most definitely an example of a system gone wrong. Mr. Ponta had disregarded the charges against him and carried on as recklessly as usual. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis repeatedly called on Mr. Ponta to step down since the corruption scandal came to light in June of this year. It was finally the voice of the people in the streets, shouldering the burden of another government corruption tragedy, which forced Romania’s prime minister and his staff to resign.

Furious over the tragedy, carrying flags and signs with “corruption kills” written on them, Romanians rose up. Together, they shouted in the streets toward their political officials, “shame on you” and “assassins.” The mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 4 subsequently resigned over the incident. The people have responded with, “You can’t buy us with two resignations.”  Romanian media sources are still expecting the protestors to be back on the streets nearly a week after the initial tragedy.

A Romanian woman holds signs reading 'corruption kills' during a protest following the nightclub fire in Bucharest - Image courtesy of Robert Ghement/EPA
A Romanian woman holds a sign reading ‘corruption kills’ during a protest following the nightclub fire in Bucharest. Image courtesy of Robert Ghement/EPA.

It is no great secret that Romania’s government is, on the best days, an unreliable legal framework. It has historically opted to enact numerous shortsighted emergency ordinances in response to threats or public outcry, with soap opera-style drama ensuing among the politicians in power.

Theater and spectacle are used to distract from the dangerously low levels of inter-ministerial cooperation and the government’s rejection of their duties of administration, debate, and due process. The political class of Romania relies on these spectacles to maintain power, defending it with excessive bureaucracy. This system is then managed from the top of multiple conflicting pyramids, further degraded by enormously unmotivated staffs, the members of which possess an acute lack of skills for their positions.

The staff bureaucrats, often positioned by the politicians, are frequently placed in their secured positions through an employment system that accepts bribes and favors, encourages nepotism, and most strangely, sees jobs handed out as gifts. Such irresponsible behavior is made possible and sustained by the aforementioned excessive bureaucracy coalesced with zero transparency in human resources and personnel management. The pitiable administrative capability of Romania contributes to the regular mismanagement of European Union (EU) and foreign investment funds meant to improve a nation with a creative and educated population trying to grow and develop their massive potential.

This potential is hindered by Romania’s corrupt political establishment, the members of which appear to be collecting these funds for their own retirement plans, releasing development and project funding only when it benefits them personally, often with no interest in the future development of the nation. The need to prevent such corrupt practices, principally in the area of public procurement, is an epic challenge that has to come from the inside. Romania has some of the worst ratings in the EU for perceived independence of the justice system.

This is an unfortunate dilemma which will not be changed through external diplomacy, but by the will of the Romanian people—a will that is somehow forgotten by the Romanian elite. The events of 1989 should be engrained in their living memory as they are in mine, and I was but a young child and half a world away at the time of their happening. The December 1989 uprising gained root in Timişoara as the crowds rallied behind the message of László Tőkés, a Protestant clergyman, critic of the government, and known dissident. There, Romanian security forces, loyal to communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, opened fire on the crowd.

By the  20th of December, the uprising was a nationwide revolution, with regular clashes taking place between protesters and members of the Securitate. By the end, 1,104 were left dead and 3,352 wounded. A state of emergency was instituted on the 21st, but the regular army sided with the people, subsequently forcing Ceausescu to escape by helicopter. His escape did not last. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were captured soon after, given a summary trial, and were then executed by firing squad on the 25th December, 1989. The result was the bloodiest revolution following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Out of the blood came greed, as opportunists and frauds have plagued Romania and much of Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. In what can be best described as the Crystal Pepsi of freedom and democracy, carpetbaggers have increasingly preyed on the welfare and advancement of nations such as Romania since the fall of the Soviet state. Communism, in many senses, has never really left the country. The presence of corrupt organizational structures, favoritism, the reckless disregard for justice and equal human rights, the disrespect for historical findings, and a hatred for efficiency are nearly the same, but now come with corporate sponsorship. Projects such as Romania’s roadway improvement exemplify this inefficiency. They are actually progressing slower and providing roadways that are as impractical in the modern age as the Roman empire’s roadway builders could provide.

Romania has welcomed outside assistance from the U.S. and EU to assist in the modernization of its economy and military, as well as reinforcing the democratic process and the rule of law. Albeit the recommendations presented are often left on the table or become entwined in a multilayered bureaucracy, which then vines deeper than a Franz Kafka story. Like a Kafka story, the plans often lead to someplace that makes the situation far worse. Limited progress has been made against this regime fortified by documents. There has been significant advancement in the freedom of the press, civil society, and at least the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has been established to combat corruption.

The DNA is empowered by a hero to the people of Romania, Laura Codruta Kovesi, who is the current chief prosecutor of the DNA. She has been making international headlines since taking office in 2013, and is noted for driving the anti-corruption effort like no other. She receives support at home and abroad for her persistence and capability. She’s secured a record of 1,051 convictions in 2014, up from 743 in 2013, with even more expected in 2015.

Her convictions record since January 2014 includes a former prime minister, seven former ministers, a former deputy prime minister, four lawmakers, one European Parliament lawmaker, 39 mayors, 25 magistrates and two business tycoons. Most recently, she led the effort against ex-prime minister Victor Ponta.

Data courtesy of the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom.
Charting freedom from corruption. Orange: Romania, green: United States of America, black: global average. Data courtesy of the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom.

While civil society in Romania has grown stronger, it still is not self-sustaining. In particular, the opportunities for reform have not been seized aggressively, and internal bickering within the political class—by way of dramatics—dictates the news and impedes any opportunities for real reform.

Privatization of the Romanian economy has been stalled in its final stages as politicians keep business opportunities locked in step with their own advantage and personal interests. Real capitalism through economic reforms must continue if Romania intends to advance with the rest of the world. By opening private business and investment opportunities for its citizens, the country can increase its competitiveness—necessary if it is to prosper in the EU and global markets. This could happen if Romania’s government can foster the ability to competently and effectively administer its judicial and regulatory systems.

Romania’s economic freedom score is 66.6, making its economy the 57th freest nation in the 2015 Index. Data courtesy of the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom.
Romania’s economic freedom score is 66.6, making its economy the 57th most free nation in the 2015 index. Data courtesy of the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom.

Flexibility must expand to the people so a real free market can develop and the country can release itself of the bondage that is unjustifiable government red tape and corruption—a free market that energizes entrepreneurship and innovation in Romania, by Romanians. Its antiquated road network will of course need to be developed to first-world specs if things are to progress. Almost half of Romania’s population resides in rural areas, and they are increasingly restricted by these Dr. Seuss roadways. The roads force a third of the labor force, employed in agriculture, to delay distribution, growth, and production. Delays such as these could be easily avoided by investing into transit infrastructure to allow for the freedom of movement on the roadways and improve the individual empowerment of the citizens.

That would have been a superior investment to the one billion euros or $1,074,849,972.44 dollars wasted on the construction of the Cathedral for the Salvation of the Romanian People in Bucharest. The project, which has been “under construction” since 2004, did not break ground until 2010 and is currently at only 60 percent completion. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out where the money for the construction is going. It most certainly is not for the benefit of the nation. Money could be better spent through the use of calculated entrepreneurship education and opportunities for the development of new methodologies to improve logistics and productivity. These small starts, along with letting people know and witness that they have the possibility of developing alternative forms of employment in rural areas can make significant regional impact.

Such radical actions would take extensive but necessary reforms such as scholarships on domestic non-government organizations, entrepreneurship, emerging markets, and land ownership under individual and small business owners. The road for even the consideration of such actions is paved in paper and lined with red tape. These are but a few examples of why reform is needed in Romania and why the people are on the streets calling for change.

There is a real need for the elimination of arduous license and permit requirements, ensuring contract sanctity, reform of the labor code, lower labor taxes, stability of commercial laws, improved protection of intellectual property, increased transparency in economic and legislative decisions, and serious measures to counter corruption. These are a few principle points for change in a system operated by corruption, and as we have learned, corruption kills.

(Featured image courtesy of vox.com)