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"Crucify Me" - A Conversation With a Romanian Politician

We were celebrating a friend's birthday in a rented log cabin on the banks of Lake Tarnita when I met Steve (not his real name). Steve was well dressed, in dark coloured slacks and a white button up shirt with cufflinks. It's only worthy of mention because I found it overly formal for a cabin get-together where the principal activities were eating, drinking, and karaoke, but to each his own. He'd kept to himself most of the evening, but then he came by the kitchen-counter/bar where I'd gotten comfortable with a bottle of Ballantine's and we got to talking, initially about travel.

"If I could live anywhere in the world I'd move to Costa Rica." Steve said.
"Why there?"
"Nice, peaceful country. The weather's perfect. And it's far away from here."
"And you'd leave Romania for good?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, this country is done for."
"How about the future?" I asked, just to be philosophical.
"Romania's got no future. It's done. The only thing left to do here is to get the hell out...that's what Romania is good for, leaving."

He took a sip of his drink and I took a sip of mine and didn't say anything. But I knew - a friend had mentioned it earlier - Steve was a former Deputy in Romania's parliament; his statement had the peculiar hint of warning.

"Things are much better than they were thirty years ago..." I started, "things are better than five years ago, even. You can't just say things don't get better."
"Trust me, nobody's doing anything good in Romania."

As we spoke I was able to gather that he'd been a parliamentary backbencher for a significant period, had worked with all the usual suspects at the time, Basescu, Boc, Udrea, among others, and generally enjoyed his time in Parliament.

"Things were good for a while. I led parliamentary commissions, met interesting people, traveled around. But there are sharks everywhere."

He gave me an example.

"Imagine a guy, your boss, comes up to you says 'take this case and bring it to the Audi in the parking lot', this is in Parliament, okay, Casa Poporului. And then he tells you to be careful with it because there are three hundred thousand Euros inside. What do you do, man? You bring the damn case and you get on with your day!" Steve's wiseguy-from-Bucharest accent made it sound all the more authentic.

I had the feeling he wanted to unburden, to exonerate himself. I asked him why he got into politics. I don't remember exactly but it was through family connections, an uncle or godfather. He had no political aspirations himself but an opportunity had come up and he carpe'd the diem. He thought it would be a good job. And yet, I posited, he was a public servant, he had to represent a constituency and their interests. "Nobody's interested in anything except money." 

He splashed more whisky into our glasses. We spoke about happiness.
"Happiness is the only thing that matters. It's all I want in life. It means you got your family, your home, all healthy. Everything is good. What more do you need? It's all that matters."
"What about meaning?" I said, "Do you think you can ever be happy if you're shut off in your own bubble and everything around you is going down the drain?"
But this is why Costa Rica would be the perfect place, Steve said, away from Romania and its problems, and - I assumed - away from his problems. But I insisted.
"Even in Costa Rica, you'll be a Romanian. You're not going to get away just like that, from your roots, from all the ties here. At best you just won't have to see the people who suffer."
"I did my part, I had my mandate, but nobody moves a finger, they're useless bureaucrats even if you got projects, new ideas. Nobody does anything. You got people who don't even do what they need to do when the money's in the bank, just out of spite."

Statistical insert

The Romanian Court of Accounts (the official state auditor) report for 2016 highlights the disgraceful waste of money in the Romanian state, much of it due sheer incompetence - or perhaps even spite. Some of the key points:

1. ANAF (the Romanian IRS) haven't cashed in a single Leu from the sell-off of seized assets.
2. The Ministry of Health had 110 million Euros leftover from their 2011-2015 budget. The money could have been spent on 72 MRI machines for the same number of hospitals. 
3. The Ministry of Health also missed out on 300 million Euros in non-reimbursable EU funding for the period running between 2014-2020 because they were unable to complete the required project forms on time.
4. In May 2013, board members for the state run national airline, TAROM, awarded themselves early performance bonuses, worth over 60,000 euros annually, for the 2013 to 2016 business cycle.
Source (Romanian)


"I've always said that politicians aren't as much the problem in this country as the people who elect them." I ventured. I often say this, but not usually to parliamentarians, lest I encourage them.
"Exactly," he said, "exactly!" Then he spread his arms open and said, "Crucify me. Crucify me just because I was doing my job." Thinking back, I may have kept a straight face.
"I could lose my freedom. I contemplated suicide. You don't know what I've been through. You got people here who can just take your freedom over nothing. Over a bunch of bullshit. And you got people who control them."
"And then you have the rest, most of whom are too ignorant or too apathetic to understand, or to care, about anyone but themselves."
"That's why I'm getting out as soon as I can." Steve said.

This was the gist of our conversation around politics, although it was longer and more interesting than what I've been able to reproduce for this post. I genuinely enjoyed the discussion and perspective, but what I did not appreciate fully, at the time, is the gravity of Steve's statements given his parliamentary past. This is why I decided to post the story.

Even if 'there is no such thing as an honest politician' there are such things as civic duty, integrity, selflessness, and conscientiousness, among others, which are the kind of values we should all be able to recognize - and desire - in the people who represent our interests at all levels of government. 
A couple of weeks ago I was out on a terrace with the friend we were celebrating that night at the cabin, and one of his remarks stuck. For a bit of added context, he is British, married to a Romanian, and often talks about the many things he appreciates about Romania. But he can't get over how politically inactive and unmotivated Romanians are when it comes to participating in democratic processes. He told me that a few nights before, at dinner with several Romanian friends, he brought up the recent anti-PSD protests. Nobody had much of an opinion and they casually dismissed the topic as, 'politics bullshit'.
He said, "You know there's something wrong when you're the only non-Romanian at the table but also the only person there who cares about what happens in Romanian politics."

Before any of us criticize Steve, or any of his colleagues, too harshly, we may want to look at the people next to us at the dinner table - we may want to look in the mirror, too - and ask whether this country is really just for leaving, or if maybe we've just given up without even trying.


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