Culture vs. corruption in Romania

Culture vs. corruption in Romania
Cristian Mungiu's “Bacalaureat” won him best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest August 8, 2016

Truth can be stranger than fiction, at least in the murky chronicles of Romania’s fight against corruption. In its online Museum of Corruption, Bucharest-based digital marketing agency Kinecto Isobar invites users to guess whether the cases illustrated are real or invented. Sacks of money handed over in a graveyard, a bribe of seven doors – both are true cases according to the site’s creators, who say they are simply trying to keep news of official corruption that is too often hyped but swiftly forgotten in the public eye.

Within Romania, the campaign to stamp out graft, spearheaded by the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), is seemingly unstoppable. But attitudes to corruption are complex. While cheering DNA head Laura Kovesi’s efforts to bring top politicians to justice, many Romanians still voted for candidates under investigation or even convicted of corruption in the recent local elections.

The virtual museum and other cultural works – from traffic cop Marian Godina’s bestseller to the Cannes award winning film “Graduation” – may not have a direct impact on curbing corruption, but they at least are contributing to changing the culture within Romania, their supporters believe.

The touchables

At their offices in Bucharest’s leafy Dorobantilor district, Kinecto Isobar’s new business director Carmen Simion and senior copywriter Denisa Armasu are shooting the breeze about the latest developments in Romania’s long-running corruption soap opera. Both women are from the northern town of Baia Mare, where on June 5 Catalin Chereches was re-elected mayor with 70% of the vote despite being under arrest on bribery charges. Similar cases were reported in other towns across the country.

Cases illustrated in the virtual gallery range from the spectacular – the gold ingots and work by artists including Picasso and Renoir hidden by former finance minister Darius Valcov in the walls of his house – to the comically insignificant of pizza, sausages and mineral water.

Simion says her colleagues waded through hundreds of cases as they tried to decide which to include. “It was difficult to make up the shortlist, as there were so many to choose from.” They are now looking for a physical space to display the illustrations, and might also hold a “mobile gallery” event on bicycles.

“We started looking at how low you can go. The truth is often stranger than fiction,” says Armasu. “It’s funny in a sad way. The big fish were so sure of themselves. They thought they were untouchable – until they weren’t.”

The aim of the gallery is to provide a record of corrupt acts by officials that will endure once the original press reports “get lost in the clutter”, says Armasu. “Usually [these corrupt politicians] make a donation, build a church and suddenly they are the good guy again. I think we were hoping that on a small level it would put pressure on politicians – but if the threat of being arrested doesn’t scare them, probably being on a website won’t either.”

Romanian NGOs and civil society organisations, as well as the newly formed political party Union Save Romania are trying to keep the focus on corruption ahead of the general election this autumn. However, while the main parties pay lip service to the issue, in practice many MPs cross party lines to vote against investigations into fellow parliamentary members.

The leader of Romania’s largest party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) has already been convicted of voter manipulation in the 2012 referendum and was recently indicted for instigation to abuse of power and instigation to forgery. However, Liviu Dragnea retains the support of his party, which is expected to do well in the forthcoming election. Meanwhile, there is widespread disappointment that more progress has not been made under President Klaus Iohannis, the candidate from the PSD’s main rival, the National Liberal Party (PNL). The former mayor of the provincial town of Sibiu, Iohannis was seen as a “clean” outside candidate.

Despite the worst efforts of many politicians, Romania managed to claw its way up 11 places on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, and the DNA’s progress has impressed observers in Brussels. Largely this is down to Kovesi, under whose leadership the DNA has prosecuted numerous high-ranking politicians and government officials, including former prime minister Victor Ponta, which is contributing to a change of attitude within the country. Kovesi has become something of a heroine among many Romanians, who applaud her success in bringing down top officials of all political stripes.

Go Godina!

The appeal of an individual taking on the system is also the likely reason for the runaway success of Marian Godina’s book, “Flash-uri din sens opus” (“Flashes in Plain Sight”). Known as Romania’s “honest cop” (the use of the singular is telling), Godina started writing about his work in the Transylvanian town of Brasov on his Facebook page. Ironically, he only shot to fame when his superiors ordered him to close down the page, which at that time had 20,000 followers, causing a media furore.

Maria Desmirean, executive manager of Curtea Veche Publishing, says her firm approached Godina with the idea of publishing a book both because of his talent as a writer and because “he is a voice who talks about respect for his office as a policeman, the job the Romanian citizens are paying him to do”.

Curtea Veche is known for bringing out topical books (it published Iohannis’ autobiography shortly before his election), but Desmirean admits that books like Godina’s are not common. Within two months of publication, it had sold 40,000 copies in a country where the median print run is only around 1,000. Godina also brought out a children’s book, “In Misune cu Marian” (“On a mission with Marian”), in June.

Desmirean believes the book struck a chord because Godina was telling people things they already knew and doing so “with a lot of decency, simplicity and modesty”. “After communism, Romanians got used to very high levels of corruption, especially in the police and healthcare systems. Marian showed himself to be a decent human being trying to do his job. People wanted this kind of relationship with this kind of policeman.”

The head of the local police force, who featured in Godina’s posts, has since taken early retirement. Meanwhile, Godina plans to remain with the force despite his publishing success. “He likes rules,” Desmirean says of her author. “He likes to follow rules, he likes other people to follow rules, he deeply believes that following rules is the key to a well-functioning society. I think this is why he loves his job so much.”

Another young idealist taking on the system is the protagonist of the 2015 film “De Ce Eu?” (“Why me?”). It is based on the true story of prosecutor Cristian Panait (Cristian Panduru in the film), who committed suicide in 2002 at the age of just 29 after being told to investigate a colleague who had recently ordered the arrest of the son of a prominent local official. Panait refused to charge his colleague, and many believe he was “suicided”.

On the film’s website, director Tudor Giurgiu writes that he had been collecting media about Panait for a decade and strongly identified with the young prosecutor. When he resigned under a cloud from the helm of public broadcaster TVR, “I felt like I was walking in Panait’s shoes... I too had tried to ‘change the water in the fish tank’, but I only succeeded to a very small extent.”

“The film about Panait/Panduru is, to a certain extent, a film about the failure of my generation – the failure to change Romania’s social and political environment,” he writes, citing the continued influence of former members of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s feared and hated Securitate secret police in politics and business.

Another Romanian filmmaker, Cristian Mungiu, achieved stunning success with his film “Bacalaureat” (“Graduation”), which gained him the best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival. “Bacalaureat”, the story of a surgeon and his teenage daughter in Romania’s second city Cluj, tackles the theme of small-scale corruption. Elena, a star student, is sexually assaulted on the morning of her school-leaving exam, leaving her in no state to take the test that will secure her a place at Cambridge University. Her father starts to call in favours from influential patients to try and secure her a good grade, but has to force Elena to go along with the scheme.

BUG in the system

And from the glamour of Cannes to the gritty Bucharest suburb of Pantelimon. Long before the DNA was even founded, locally born hip-hop group B.U.G. Mafia (short for Bucharest Underground Mafia) was causing controversy with songs on crime, politics and poverty that shocked listeners as much as their explicit lyrics. The group has sold over 1.1mn records in Romania since it was founded back in 1993 as Black Underground, confirming this cultural fight against corruption is by no means an exclusively recent phenomenon.

Several of its songs tackle issues such as official corruption and life in Pantelimon and other grim working-class districts. “Fara Cuvinte” (“Without Words”) draws a picture of a society with rising barriers between rich and poor, where children are abandoned by their parents, and “angels burn in hospitals” is a line penned long before the deaths from the 2015 Club Collectiv tragedy in Bucharest. The video shows two small children being abducted after their parents are injured in a car crash. Politicians are singled out for criticism: “Wolves don’t gather in packs any more, but in political parties”. In case there is any doubt about the location, the final lines make it clear this is a picture of Romania.

The activity of the DNA has undoubtedly been accompanied by rising pressure for change from civil society and the arts. However, artist and curator Ioana Ciocan warns in an interview with bne IntelliNews that this should not be over-estimated.

Ciocan has previously expressed her criticism of corruption in Romania through installations like “Trei culori cunosc pe lume” (“Three colours I know in this world”) – a marzipan Romanian flag eaten by worms, as well as “Plai natal, grădină-n floare”, a map of Romania made of 10 bani (RON0.10, €0.02) coins; the public were invited to help themselves if they chose to.

She points out that while corruption is widely discussed by Bucharest’s chattering classes, this is not representative of the whole country. “Look at the last [local] elections – they voted in people who are in jail,” she says, adding that, “It was very disappointing for my crowd, who are small but vocal, but it’s not a burning topic for the population.”

Indeed, there is a danger than many of the writers, artists and filmmakers who tackle the theme of corruption are preaching to the converted. For them to have a real impact in forcing mass political change, they face the challenge of reaching beyond Romania’s educated urban elites to the rest of the country, which seems to care less.