During the late hours on Friday evening, October 30th, a popular Bucharest nightclub, The Colectiv, caught fire. The fire killed over 30 people, dozens are badly injured, and hundreds are in the hospital. The incident generated a major debate in Romanian society concerning the role of the state, the endemic corruption, and the capability of the national healthcare system. In this context, there are three points to be considered to better understand the situation: the way in which the tragedy is being framed in the public sphere, the reactions coming from different groups, and the issues not previously taken into account publicly.
President Klaus Iohannis and his right wing allies have framed the events as a “corruption issue.” The president went so far as to claim that “corruption kills”, which is politically advantageous for the right in Romania and could bolster efforts to strengthen an already-robustly militarized state, including the police, army, secret services, and prosecutors’ offices. However, once again, this takes place in an environment in which only the state gets blamed for endemic corruption, while the “bribers” (rent-givers) are rarely and barely held accountable. All major state agencies responsible for checking the conditions in nightclubs have suffered sharp budget cuts and experienced numerous layoffs as a result of austerity policies. As these policies have led to a sharp decrease in employment in the public sector and regulations cannot be implemented without people, can we expect to have a functioning state, one that is capable of regulating economic activities?
The ability of the state to enforce legislation should include an honest discussion about the relationship between the ideology of a minimal state and actual state capacity. The nightclub industry is only one out of many areas where a stronger state should be desired. The withdrawal of the state from various segments of the economy (the financial sector, social security, or healthcare) can only be detrimental, and a good state is one that taxes the rich and generates enough revenue to be able to employ as many people as it needs to implement its rules. Additionally, Romania needs new regulations offering its citizens future protection from similar tragedies. These regulations should be adopted and implemented through a democratic framework, which implies the need for setting up mechanisms of accountability and legitimacy.
On the other hand, on top of the official right wing surrounding the president, other groups have attempted to highjack the debate, with nationalists being among the most vocal. Messages such as “I am Romanian, I support #colectiv” are quite popular on social media and on TV. This leads to a questioning of the way nationalism is constructed in contemporary Romania. Traditionally, Romanian nationalism revolves around the idea of ethnic purity, often leading to discrimination against groups such as the Roma. The fact that a Roma woman, Maria Ion, mother of five, employed as a cleaning lady in the club, also died in the fire doesn’t seem to interest nationalists.
Another dimension of the nationalist discourse includes open disdain for a genre of music commonly associated with the Roma. There are voices framing the events by using music as a justification of their hatred of Romas. They juxtapose rock music (which was listened in the club when the fire started) with manele (pop turbo-folk kind of music mostly sung by Roma performers). It usually happens, they say, that “good music” is played in dangerous “underground” places, while “vulgar” music dominates the mainstream and is openly accepted by the general public. This type of discourse feeds into anti-Roma and nationalistic sentiments. For many years now, manele has been associated with the poor and the Roma, creating an overall stigma associated with this genre of music.
Alongside messages of solidarity coming from all over society, on social media we find articles in which the Roma living in the neighborhood where the accident took place are presented as thieves robbing dead bodies. Once again, the nation is seen as Romanian, while the “other” is being caricaturized and demonized.
For leftists groups, the case of Maria Ion seems to be of considerable interest, since it reveals the systemic inequality in society. Maria Ion was employed without official documents, she was taking care of a differently abled husband and five children, and, 10 years ago, was the victim of a forced eviction. For ten years she had tried to obtain a home from the local government but she was constantly refused. Hundreds more of such cases exist in Romania. The Vulturilor Street case is only one of the more commonly known ones. Inequality in Romania is multifaceted: poverty, marginalization and ghettoization, exploitation in the name of profit, an illegitimate relationship between the state and the employers, discrimination based on ethnicity and gender constitute some of its different dimensions.
One voice which has failed to comment on what has been described as the greatest tragedy in Bucharest in the last 20 years is the Orthodox Church. Having built a strong relationship with the state throughout the years (indeed, it can be said that they have become accomplices), the church has remained silent, a fact that has generated quite an outrage amongst the people marching on the streets of Bucharest, who are asking for quick and effective reforms. Banners with messages such as “18,000 churches built in past two decades, only 425 hospitals” were displayed in public squares over the weekend. Many people are asking for an end to the privileges of the church and for the bolstering of investment in the public healthcare system. The fact that two hundred injured people led to hospitals in Bucharest being instantly overcrowded is indicative of failures in the system writ large. Questions such as “What would we do if we were struck by an earthquake with thousands of victims?” are being asked. Again, the effects of austerity must be brought to the forefront of public debate, since between 2009 and 2015 the state closed almost one hundred hospitals throughout the country and made massive cuts in public healthcare, resulting in thousands of doctors being forced to emigrate. Now a new agreement with the IMF could lead to another 200 hospitals being shut down.
In light of the ongoing debates in Romanian society in the aftermath of the nightclub tragedy, it is important to understand the real shortcomings of the political and governmental system. The system is plagued by endemic corruption, affecting all strata of society, and it is paramount that Romanians honor the memories of those who died in the fire by discussing the larger context and real circumstances that enabled the tragedy to happen. This is the time to speak up and ask for real change. We are living in one of those rare and short periods of time bringing an opportunity for real change, with policymakers being forced to listen to us. Romania would benefit from the strengthening of regulations, tighter control of the private sector by the state, and improved implementation of already existing legislation concerning club licenses. These steps include setting in place the democratic institutions capable of keeping economic relations in a balance, to the benefit not just of employers, but also of the employees who are the real producers of profit. The question is: will the government seize the moment in order to strengthen the militarized arm of the state or will it broaden its understanding of social justice, as well as that of the society in which we all want to live in.
Vlad Levente Viski