By Tabby Urban and Andrei Popoviciu.
Tabby is a second year German student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. She’s the editor of the MENA Section at IRT, interned for the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Bucharest and has lived in Romania for 8 years.
Andrei is a first year Romanian student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, he’s the Social Media Editor for IRT and has always been passionate about Romanian politics and current affairs. He got to discuss such topics during European Youth Parliament (EYP) sessions, a project he’s been involved in for the past 3 years.
It was the beginning of the Halloween weekend in Bucharest when a metal rock concert turned into a real-life horror show. The band was playing at “Colectiv”, an underground nightclub in Bucharest, when a fire broke out, killing at least 32 people and seriously injuring another 180 making the days of 31st of October, 1st and 2nd of November days of national mourning.
This catastrophe could have been avoided, and many things went wrong that night. First of all, “Colectiv” didn’t have a licence to host the several hundreds of people that were at the concert that night, due to there being only one emergency exit. Second, the pyrotechnics used during the concert, and which started the fire, were not admissible under the safety regulations of the venue. Thirdly, there were not sufficient medical personnel to treat the vast amount of burn and smoke-poisoned people at the scene.
This has led to protests in Bucharest, and in several other cities across Romania, which have called once more for the increased fight against corruption and the reform of the health care system. Corruption, which is still widespread in Romania even though the National Agency for fighting corruption (DNA) has increased the fight against it in the political and social realm, is seen to be at the basis of this catastrophe. The claims are becoming reality that the owners of “Colectiv” paid bribes in order to attain the licence to host the concert on October 30th, which hence caused the deaths of at least 32 people. In response to this, the owners of “Colectiv” were arrested on the suspicion of manslaughter and involuntary bodily harm.
This is followed by several clubs across the country closing for a period of time in order to “bring their venues up to EU standard.” It leaves us to wonder as to why a horrible event like the one that took place at “Colectiv” has to occur before other venues decide to update their security measures according to “EU standard.” This is also ironic and painfully overdue, since this should have happened at least 8 years ago when Romania joined the EU.
The shock and sorrow that followed the fire was soon transformed into anger in the Romanian population, with 20,000 people gathering at the University Square in Bucharest on November 3rd to protest against corruption and the PM, Victor Ponta, the only sitting prime minister to stand trial for corruption. People were seen waving Romanian flags with holes in them, re-embodying the protests that toppled the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. This was just the tip of the iceberg, with the majority of Romanians having been deeply unhappy with Ponta as PM because of the thick layer of corruption and political misconduct that covered him throughout his term. Ponta faced serious accusations since 2012 when he first took the role of Romania’s PM, such as forging expanse claims worth 181,000 lei (£29,000), tax evasion and money laundering. He received countless calls to resign his position but he refused to give it up until the end of his term in 2016 until the events that happened at “Colectiv” and the protests in University Square. This massive accumulation of people at University Square shouting for him to step down finally had the desired impact, and Ponta resigned as PM on November 4th.
President Klaus Iohannis, who had been in political rivalry with Ponta after he won against him in the presidential elections in 2014, welcomed Ponta taking the political consequences for the recent events. Who will be the new PM is yet unclear, but Iohannis hopes that his former Liberals (PNL) will be able to re-gain the majority in parliament. In the challenging search to assign a new PM, Iohannis decided he needs to get the public’s opinion not only the one of the political parties. On the 5th of November he released a statement saying “I have seen you, I have heard you and I will take all your solicitations into account”. The Romanian president also added that he needs the public’s opinion to help him assign a new PM so on the 6th of November he will “convene a group of citizens that will represent the public opinion and the streets”.
The protests have also had a backlash on the Romanian Orthodox Church, which is a strong political and social force in Romania. Especially the head of the Church, Patriarch Daniel, has been criticised and demanded to step down after he accused the people at the concert that fateful night as being “Satanists” for attending a metal rock concert. Protestors have hence pointed out the unfathomable proportion of churches supported by government funds to the number of hospitals in Romania: 18,000 to 425. This accompanies demands that the health care system is in serious need of reform, and that at least 10% of Romania’s GDP should be spent in this sector.
The fire at “Colectiv” has shown to create some serious waves of revolt in Romanian society. This tragic incident, where dozens have been killed and hundreds harmed, has resulted in the ultimate push that Romanians needed to show some real commitment in expressing the need for change in the country. However, what will come after these protests is yet to be decided. Romanians know that they want to change the system from the bottom up, but with what distinct end is unclear to many.