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The Illusion of Corruption

Why is Romania the way it is? Why does Eastern Europe, in general, suffer from the same negative stereotypes for the last twenty years? This part of the world emits a strange sort of war-torn vibe to North Americans. A world of crumbling commie blocks where danger lurks around every corner in the form of gypsy pickpockets, mafiosos in black leather jackets, cold blooded femme fatales, disenfranchised youth itching to pick fights, and, of course, cops that are more criminal than the criminals. All of these shady characters lack any humour, chain smoke, and seemingly exist only to rip-off innocent tourists and burden their fellow citizens -who, by the way,  if they aren't of the former variety, are seen as some sort of victimized paupers incapable of rising above their circumstances. Only the truly adventurous dare to travel here. The mavericks.

Call me a maverick. Call every Romanian, Bulgarian, Serb, and fellow Balkanite a maverick. We don't just travel here, we live here! Imagine that, millions of people who live their day to day lives in this part of the world. People who work nine to five, go shopping, enjoy family dinners, and take camping trips on weekends. Commie blocks are getting makeovers (paint mostly), entrepreneurs are starting companies, music producers are creating world renowned hits (for better or worse), foreign companies are setting up shop, we are winning top prizes in math competitions, but still, Romania has a terrible international image

According to 99% of all media outlets inside and outside Romania, the people who visit here, political observers, and pretty much every citizen of this country (including the politicians), this is why: Romania is one of the EU's most corrupt countries.


It's about time somebody calls bullshit on this self-propagating lie. The damage it causes can't be measured in the impact of lost investment opportunities or low tourism revenue. It does something far worse; it distracts us from solving the real problem. By accepting that Romania's big problem is corruption, we are focused on fixing an unfixable problem. Before you call me a cynic think about it this way: Is there no corruption in the US government (Haliburton, oil and gas lobby, 2004 elections...)? Are British politicians and officials pristine examples of ethical behaviour? Is nepotism not a fact of Japanese governance? Wasn't the current Conservative Canadian government accused of suppressing voters in opposition ridings during the 2011 elections? The list goes on and on with every government and political party in the world playing a part somewhere, so please, spare me the "most corrupt" bullshit. 

Granted, this corruption stigma might actually be doing our politicians a favour. "Yes, let's stamp out corruption. It's the only reason Romania's being kept out of the Schengen zone!" they cry. Then they spend the next five years pointing fingers at each other while trying to "stamp out corruption". As they've been doing for the past twenty. 

Incompetence. That's the problem. Corruption is just the by-product. If Romanian politicians were competent law-makers, they wouldn't pass laws that encourage graft. If they were competent economists they would know that they should spend tax money on health and education and they would encourage innovation and private enterprise. They would not sell steelworks, oil refineries, and other state companies for pennies and destroy entire sectors and kill off thousands of jobs in the process. If our politicians and top officials were capable managers, we'd be better off, and corruption wouldn't be the problem. If, if, if. If, at least, they were better at being corrupt. But they're too incompetent to hide what they're doing so corruption just looks like the obvious culprit. But it's not. We need to start taking the emphasis off corruption and onto the real issue. 

The only way we can do this in Romania is by calling bullshit on every bad customer service experience, every jobsworth functionary, every useless bureaucrat, and all the incompetent politicians who supposedly represent us. We can be polite about it, but we don't need to stand by idly, shrug our shoulders, and say 'that's Romania'. These people don't represent me, do they represent you? 

I omitted a very important detail when comparing corruption in Romania to corruption in Western countries, and this is why I'm saying that corruption itself is not the main issue (not that it isn't an issue or that it doesn't exist). The corrupt Western politician is not incompetent. Their corrupt acts are well hidden, harder to prove, and they tend to do two things very well: 

1. Their job - with a certain degree of liability in front of their constituents. 
2. They have the integrity (ironically enough) to resign if/when they're caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Both of these concepts are foreign to Romanian politicians , thus, I can only surmise that the corrupt mentality is a natural symptom of endemic mismanagement and incompetence at all levels of governance. We fix that and we stand a better chance of stamping our petty corruption than by focusing on stamping out corruption without addressing the shortcomings of our leaders as managers, administrators, and...well, as leaders.


  1. Matt, I have to disagree. What's common with all "corrupt" countries? The level of poverty of the majority of the population. That reflects the income of government officials and poor officials are the shortest path to rampant corruption. Similar to a business, there will be a level of risk that people are willing to take to generate an income. In Canada, you are caught with a bribe, you're finished! In Romania that's not always the case (I would say that is exceptional considering the level of bribing). In most cases, the offenders flaunt their ill acquired wealth behind their old aunts that suddenly acquired exceptional business acumen at the ripe age of 85. In Canada, the Revenue Service would fall on them like a ton of bricks! So, let's hope that the wealth of regular people would increase to a level where officials have to think twice before they accept a bribe.

    1. The problem with bribes is that it goes both ways. It's not simply a matter of discouraging officials from accepting bribes, but passing laws that are just as tough for those who offer them.

      As for the level of poverty, yes it opens doors to many social ills, corruption included. But the most corrupt are never the poorest of the poor either...again, look West for proof.

  2. I am an expat as well in Romania for many years, and I was wondering:

    How long have you lived here?

    You seem to really have lost the plot (apart from the last paragraph)

    1. I also used to think corruption was the problem when I moved back two years ago.
      I now see that it's incompetence, a lack of inspired ideas, the institutionalized mentality, and many other attitudes that aren't corrupt per se, but that lead to corruption quite naturally.

  3. Matt,
    The entire problem revolves around Economics. Legal principles which eventually become laws are usually meant to support and enforce the economic principles of that culture.

    Most of the important names relating to money and economics stem from western europe. They have built their empires and managed resources (human resources included) for thousands of years. During this entire time Romania was always used and abused by these powerful leaders and consequently the Romanian culture evolved into the adaptive and corrupt culture that it is today... Economic trickery has never failed to convince Romanians to sell whatever resource they had for money and acceptance by the west... and so "Greed and competition are not the result of immutable human temperament…greed and fear of scarcity are in fact being created and amplified…the direct consequence is that we have to fight with each other in order to survive" Bernard Lietaer, Founder of the EU Currency System. And without principles and leaders to sacrifice to maintain those principles a culture become "o curva de cultura"

    "Political economy" was the original term used for studying production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth.

    1. Agreed, it's almost all about Economics. Our politicians don't have a clue about it. I always found it weird to hear about people who got economics degrees under communism...a bit of an academic oxymoron.

      Interesting you mention "fear of scarcity". I find that it's something ingrained in the Romanian psyche, and at the root plenty of the country's social problems.

  4. Matt,
    really enjoy your insights and comments. Just moved here from Texas, working with a Fundatia that helps educate Roma kids in Tarnaveni. As the people there have just about stripped the deserted factory of everything salvageable, I'd like to help some get jobs, or something going to make some cash. Feel like a guy standing in front of 10 houses on fire with one bucket of water, but hey....
    keep posting. I find good ideas in what you and the responders to your post say.

    1. Hey Dennis, my hope for Romania is that we'll one day have a society that breeds people like you -willing to travel in a developing country to help - who work hard and sacrifice lots because it's for a greater good.
      I, too, often feel like that. Standing in front of a burning building and I don't even have a bucket of water, just a blog.
      Thanks for coming here to help, feel free to drop me a line any time you're in Cluj.

  5. It's up for the people to care to learn, to understand, and to stand up.
    A lack of education will leave you ignorant. Too much education makes you into a tool.

    Un proverb despre PhD: "Those who can't do, do teach."

    The American Dream Film - Full Length film

    1. That's a 'cartoon' that everyone should watch. I remember thinking it was over-simplistic, but also a fair assessment of what 'The American Dream' has become.

      The point you make about education has its merits. There's a lot more emphasis placed on academic credentials in this country than in America, where experience is always prized and where hard-work and dedication is rewarded. So here, we have a bunch of "Dottores" who have no actual management experience -no real world experience as it were. And then we have lots of people who learn useless theory in school that, again, has little to do with the real world, and of course, plenty of people with zero education (often the most honest of the bunch).

      Lots of work ahead.

  6. I think the most important thing (for me) reading this article was the part where you said people just accept it as 'that's Romania'. The more people accept the country as corrupt, the more people they accept as corrupt, the more people can get away with because they know no one will protest against it, because 'that's Romania' and...we come a full circle. 'That's just the way it is' is just an enabler for this kind of corruption to continue and stalls progress. I hope things change and people begin to see that Romania has a lot more to offer than corruption, and so do the people.

    1. Yes and this goes for so many things:
      Bad construction? That's Romania!
      Broken products? That's Romania!
      Bad customer service? That's Romania!
      It's like a bad episode of The Three Stooges or some other ridiculous slapstick comedy, and yes, above all, it somehow absolves people from taking any responsibility -either from participating or from fighting against it.

  7. You know Matt, this makes me think about that ancient PR problem: if you're a public relations officer for a big corporate and a huge scandal emerges, do you publically acknowledge the problem and work to address it, or do you try to sweep it under the carpet and criticise anybody who mentions it?

    If there's one thing all fear-mongering about Romanian immigrants has done, it's to show Romanians very clearly that a lot of the things they saw as accepted parts of their culture - such as bribery - are considered completely foreign in other cultures.

    Here's a pretty scary example of bribery, written by an infamous foreign correspondent in Romania in a UK newspaper:

    Maybe instead of Romanians trying to criticise those criticising Romania, or defend bribery as a symptom of an underpaid economy, it'd be quicker to just nationally admit that it's a serious crisis and look at stamping it out. It'd be quicker in the long-run than trying to quash international criticism by just shouting it down, and we can all agree that instances of bribery as referenced in the 'babies left to die without bribes' story have no place in modern Romania.

    Romania needs a public debate about the issue, and I can see that happening ... your article here, as a Romanian citizen, is an indicator of that. Recent anti-corruption statements made by Romanian politicians are another: whether that translates into reality is something to be seen, but at least the precedent has been set.

    1. Leon, I think you hit the nail on the head here, we need a public debate.
      Except that this is essentially what's been going on non-stop for many years only it's not so much of a debate as a spectacle, or stage-play, put on by the politicians who simply point fingers at each other about who is most corrupt. That's why I'm saying it's useless to talk corruption, the 'public debate' or attention brought to corruption already exists, but the problem is that it makes it THE PROBLEM instead of the symptom of the problem; poor administration, and lack of vision, and all kinds of stupidity that makes corruption a simple, and even natural, alternative to good governance.

  8. Hey, i just want to say thanks for this article.
    During the past year and this first months of 2013 all I can read and hear on west European German ground about Romania is "corruption". It became the favorite cliche. Nobody is looking closer into this matter, nobody can give proper well documented examples (although there are plenty in Romania) and most of all nobody is looking into his west European yard, in which corruption was so much refined and wears so much makeup that is sold as charity.Now and then some prominent examples get into the spotlight(like the German ex president or the famous plagiarism story Guttenberg)but all in all it is good and healthy for the public opinion to be aware of the fact that corruption is an issue of the East European states and corruption cases in the west are just exceptions which are publicly and especially loudly eradicated.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement :)
      Yup, the Western public is thrown some 'scraps' of corruption from their own backyard from time to time. The perpetrator is publicly shamed, exits the spotlight, and on with life -as if the ones who are left don't have any dirty little secrets. Meanwhile, Eastern Europe is corrupt because cops take $20 bribes and doctors need their pockets greased to do their jobs. But who wants to talk about why it is that cops and doctors are paid so poorly? Why European funds are not absorbed as they should be. It's naive to think it's all as simple as unscrupulous people who take bags of cash for anything. They take bags of cash because it's much easier than to do their jobs...especially when said job is badly paid and part of an underfunded department or who knows what.
      A good term I heard recently is, "Administrative Deficiency".

  9. AnonymousMay 07, 2014

    nice info

  10. If I may (and I'm from America, now living in Romania for 10 months), I'd like to poke two cents out on what I've both read here and from what I've experienced. Everything that I have read on this particular blog is correct; corruption is a big problem, economics is a huge problem, talking about corruption is not going to fix the problem. The problem isn't the corruption, it's the lack of consequences that becomes the problem. There is absolutely no consequence for the action, except that it is "allowed" to continue. And, yes there are bribes in America...they're just legalized in the form of lobbyist firms where big corporations can and do pay enormous amounts of money to have their "objectives" argued on the Hill while the average "Joe" can't accept a simple lunch from a vendor trying to do business during an already busy schedule. Corruption will never go away, it's in the spirit of politics, period...but corruption without consequences, and blatantly there for all to see and still nothing happens is a travesty. It's what kills the hope of tomorrow and makes it easier to just bury the head and go about the everyday of life.


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