Romania is the latest example where people power has worked effectively to turn things around following a tragedy that set off mounting grievances
Although it seems inherently foolhardy to set off pyrotechnics within an indoor setting, there are still plenty of nightclub owners willing to chance their arm (and the lives of their patrons) with close-up fireworks. Nine disasters occasioning mass fatalities with just such a cause have occurred since the turn of the millennium; only one of these has struck the West though.
Romania, despite being a fully paid-up member of the European Union and NATO and rated by Freedom House as a semi-consolidated democracy, is often seen as not East but not yet West either. A nightclub blaze setting in motion the fall of its government will contribute to outside eyes still seeing it in this limbo zone.
On the 30th of October, outdoor fireworks were used in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, the venue hosting a free concert by metalcore (a mixture of heavy metal and hardcore punk) band Goodbye to Gravity. As many as 45 people died and a further 166 were injured, with 3 band members among the dead. Three days of mourning were declared in Romania, the first period of such length since catastrophic flooding in 2000. Prime Minister Victor Ponta cut short a trip to Mexico but it was not enough to save him and his government.
On the 1st of November, 12,000 people marched in Bucharest out of respect for the victims. Other demonstrations took place in major cities around the country such as Braşov, Ploieşti and Iaşi. This proved the catalyst to change the marchers’ motives from those of commiseration to that of anger.
On the 3rd of November, 15,000 protested outside the headquarters of the Romanian Government, demanding the resignation of Ponta, Minister (and former acting Prime Minister) Gabriel Oprea and Cristian Piedone, the Mayor of the sector of Bucharest where Colectiv was and who had granted a nightclub licence without a fire department permit.
Ponta and his government were seen as fostering corruption. When gendarmes (Romania being a Francophone country) prevented the activists from advancing on the building, hydraulics came into effect, the crowds diverting to the Interior Ministry, still chanting slogans and holding placards emblazoned with ‘corruption kills’. Moving on to Constitution Square, in front of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s gigantic architectural monstrosity that now houses the Romanian Parliament, numbers swelled by some estimates to 30,000.
Given corruption by its very nature can only be perceived rather than officially measured, Transparency International’s report on Romania from 2013 could be construed as depressing but also gives rise to hope. Two-thirds of Romanians thought corruption had got worse in the last two years, the same as the UK but whereas the UK was ranked 14th least corrupt in 2014, Romania was ranked 69th (joint with Italy, Bulgaria and Greece). This helps explain why 98 per cent of Romanians believe that corruption is a systemic problem and three-quarters think that political parties are corrupt or extremely corrupt, with very negative ratings for Parliament, business, judiciary, health services, the police and civil servants.
When I lived in Braşov, central Romania, I knew a man (who will remain anonymous on his own request) who refused to pay bribes to advance his career in the Romanian foreign ministry — not only was he denied promotion, he was eventually hounded out and forced to resort to taking odd jobs. Despite all this, 61 per cent of Romanians are of the opinion that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption, as was shown throughout Romania this November.
Proving less resilient than the controversial fellow Balkan leader of Montenegro, Milo Đukanović, the Ponta government resigned en masse on the morning of the 4th of November, followed an hour later by Piedone falling on his sword, with expressions of regret both for granting the licence and not stepping down immediately after the tragedy. Ponta himself remained as acting Prime Minister until the formation of a new government.
Dubbed the #Colectiv Revolution by Romanian media, activists numbering 35,000 still congregated in Bucharest, some of their ire focused on the Romanian Orthodox Church for its apparent indifference to the club fire (an attitude governed by church leaders associating the event with an anti-Christian persuasion and so remaining unmoved, plenty would say coldly, by what unfolded). More marches followed: 10,000 in Timişoara (spark of the 1989 revolution against Ceauşescu); 5,000 in Craiova and Iaşi; 4,500 in Cluj-Napoca (another scene of rebellion in 1989); 4,000 in Sibiu; 3,000 in Galaţi, Constanţa and Bacău; 1,000 in Focșani, with associate protests of solidarity in London, Paris and Madrid.
The demands were for fresh elections and a complete overhaul of the political class, a message endorsed by the Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, who invited street representatives to consultation talks and indirectly hinted that street pressure must be kept up.
Protesting has continued but with the fall of Ponta’s government, numbers have dwindled. The 7th of November brought out 3,000 people demanding a transformation of politics in Romania, driven by the Romanian branch of the Occupy movement. People power has worked in the short-term but it must be sustained.