Bucharest club fire sparks rage against corruption

Bucharest demonstrators demand justice for the 32 killed in the Collectiv fire. Picture: AP
Bucharest demonstrators demand justice for the 32 killed in the Collectiv fire. Picture: AP
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Bribery is killing us, say Romanians as anger persists over deadly nightclub blaze

For Marius Petria, this week’s protests in the Romanian capital were the start of a change he has been waiting for for a long time.

The 34-year-old IT worker is among more than 30,000 young Romanians protesting in the main square of Bucharest, a week after 32 people died in a fire at a nightclub - an incident which has ignited a revolt in the country not seen since the Revolution of 1989, which saw dictator Nicolae Ceausescu killed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

Romania is in a state of flux for the second time in three decades. Protestors have turned out onto the streets before - to campaign against the corruption of previous president Traian Basescu and again in 2013, to block gold and silver mining project Rosia Montana in the north of the country.

But this latest uprising is calling for a major sea change in the country’s political system, which has been dogged with institutional corruption.

The nightclub fire, which began when sparklers set alight to flammable building material inside Bucharest’s Club Collectiv during a rock concert last Saturday night, has woken up a nation which until now has endured decades of bribery and croneyism in a system which has never quite emerged from the spectre of Communist rule.

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Bucharest and other Romanian towns and cities over the past week, calling for an end to the corruption which they say resulted in a failure to properly police health and safety procedures at public venues.

Waving large Romanian flags, protestors carried banners bearing slogans such as “We want to work, but corruption is killing us!”.

Questions emerged last week over bribes paid to city officials in exchange for permits for clubs and bars which do not meet legal requirements.

Anti-corruption prosecutors on Friday questioned Paul Gancea, one of the three owners of the nightclub, over charges of ”grave negligence and irresponsibility” and a “high level of social danger”.

Local news agencies reported that prosecutors were on Friday taking documents from the district town hall where the club was located.

Petria, who is among the new generation of young Romanians desperate for political change, believes that. Three of his colleagues at the international IT company where he works died in the fire and another seven are still being treated in hospital.

In total, 180 people were injured in the tragedy, of which, 90 people remain in hospital in serious or critical condition in hospitals around the capital, many suffering from burns. A further nine have been flown to Holland for specialist treatment.

“It is very different from other protests,” said Petria. “Because it is a middle class protest, it is also strange because people are not shouting for benefits. It is about demanding respect and protection from the state and in general there is no proper idea of what the people want.”

Change is already on its way. In Bucharest, bars and clubs are already ripping out their cellars to create fire escapes, while others have voluntarily closed their doors, saying they know they would not pass safety tests.

Protestors have referenced the 1989 revolution, using the words “Jos Piedone!” (“Down with Piedone!”) when calling for the resignation of Christian Popescu Piedone, the mayor of the area of Bucharest where the club was located - the same chant used to overthrow Ceausescu at the beginning of the uprising more than 25 years ago.

President Klaus Iohannis, whose surprise election earlier this year many regard as a catalyst for corruption reform, praised street demonstrations that have erupted in the past two days and said he was listening to what protesters had to say.

“I have a message for protesters. I saw you, I heard you, I will take into account your demands,” he said.

He added that he would meet political parties for talks and claimed he would bring “a new actor” to the table.

New legislation earlier this year made it easier for new political parties to be founded. It is estimated that around 30 parties have been founded since then. The problem, critics claim, is that no one knows who the leaders of these parties are - or what they stand for - yet reformists are calling for early elections.

“I will meet a group which represents civil society and the street,” said Iohannis. “It is important for me. I want to know their wishes and opinions.”

Annamaria Roman, 26, although supportive of change, is sceptical. “I find it a bit worrying because the politics will not take their normal course from now on,” she said.

“For every decision and recommendation, will we will have to consult the civil society, because ‘the president did it once?’ I am not sure if the leaders of the so-called civil society are always full with good intentions.”

Even activists like Petria are concerned that the latest protests have the same power for total change behind them - and is worried that the new Romania is lacking new political talent.

“This is not a proper revolution, it is like a maturity crisis,” he said, adding that at a high level, corruption is being tackled. Ponta in September became the first sitting Romanian prime minister to face corruption charges. Former president Basescu was ousted last year amid a corruption scandal.

“This is mostly a moral protest and it is about a state that is badly functioning in the middle, because some middle-level clerks did not pay attention to rules and took small bribes,” added Petria. “That is why this club burned.

“But the weirdness about these protests is that nobody wants to get involved. I mean, if you ask a guy on the street, ‘do you want to become a politician? Do you want to be part of the change?’ most of them will say ‘No thank you, I have a good life, I just want those that lead to be responsible, not to lie or to steal.’”