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January 17, 2022

Responsibility for crisis vs. crisis of responsibility

Agerpres has recently issued a piece of news that is quite defining of the developments in Romania in the course of 2010: in short, we are informed that the municipality of the town of Flamanzi (Botosani County) needs to cobble a road that was bituminised just six years ago in the context of an EU-funded project (!) The village road received a coat of asphalt in 2004, within a SAPARD programme investment worth 1 M. However, because of the poor quality of the work, the bitumen was damaged to the extent to which the 15-km long road has become virtually unusable. ‘With the access of residents and companies based in the area in mind we have allocated money for maintenance. What we intend to do is to cobble the road just to allow motor traffic on it. We have not managed to restore the entire initial length, but we will complete the project next spring. The road was initially designed for very light weight traffic and the quality of the work was poor’, Flamanzi Mayor Constantin Pitorac said. The mayor also claims the company that did the work has gone bankrupt in the meantime, therefore no one can now be held liable for the asphalted road that has vanished away.

So no one is guilty, no one can be held accountable for what happened. The exact same situation is replicated over and over again at a macro scale and also in politics. If it wasn’t serious, the situation described above would probably raise smiles.

It is generally believed that collective responsibility means no responsibility. Exactly! Is the local mayor or the commune council responsible in any way for the company’s bankruptcy? Of course not. They weren’t’ bound to a duty of due diligence when it came to checking the creditworthiness of the company when it submitted its tender (I wonder if there was a tender procedure at all) and when it was awarded the contract… It wasn’t their job to sign off on the quality of the work or hire specialists to do that… They are not responsible for it. The locals, on the other hand, are, as they now have to pay again for something that had been already paid for with EU money. If Brussels finds out, they may ask for their money back. I wonder how Mayor Pitorac would raise EUR 1 M!

The crisis should have rendered authorities more responsible as money gets scarce and investment becomes a rare thing, but the lack of actual responsibility is a common thing in Romania. Hence unreasonable public spending, the award of so-called bonuses and incentives in the public sector raising the jealousy of private sector workers, public procurements requiring dozens of signatures and vettings and a lot of money no one answers for in the end.

It is also the case with the Ministry of Finance, where the payment of incentives has become customary. It is also the case with the ‘wise guys’ in the energy sector (as defined by President Traian Basescu a few years back), who pay 17 per cent less than the average market price for the natural gas. As such preferential contracts are expiring at the end of the months, such company owners are now threatening to close down plants and lay off thousands of employees. It is also the case with the public procurements both politicians and economists claim are causing the state major losses. As a matter of fact, the programme the Social-Democrats have launched on the occasion of their recent congress includes an item stipulating the cutting of material and service expenses by a half.

The society is badly settled and any authentic reforms are still years away. On the other hand, the crisis provides an accurate cross section of our deceitful circumstances. We have a responsibility for the crisis, as well as crisis of responsibility. Even the fact that the Government decides to have draft laws such as the one on education or on the unified wage system passed through Parliament outside the statutory parliamentary procedures, by taking responsibility over them, points to lack of responsibility, because any amendments that would most likely improve the laws are barred and the documents go back to their original state denounced by the political class, unions and civil society alike. How can the law on education, that will influence the lives of tens of thousands of Romanian children, be rushed through Parliament just because the Government fears an open debate would ‘distort’ the substance of the legal text or based on a presidential foreboding, shared in an interview, that the Parliament would not adopt the law, therefore the Government would just have to take responsibility for it? If there is a suspicion that the Parliament would not vote for it, that should perhaps be an indication that something is wrong about it.

The maximum of irresponsibility, however, came from the Parliament itself, last week, when the MPs adopted two acts by unanimity: one cutting VAT on basic foods to 5 per cent and one exempting from tax pensions smaller than RON 2,000. The two drafts had been proposed by the opposition and the MPs backing the Government said ‘aye’, in the belief that they were actually opposing it… Is anyone held accountable for a gross lack of incompetence? Although extremely said, this episode has caused many peals of laughter. These are the politicians who led us, Romanians say.

No one seems to be responsible for the crisis itself either, despite of waves of accusations flowing from the opposition towards the power and the other way around. Now we virtually have a choice between the crisis that we know, that we experience right now and the potential crisis the oppositions’ coming to power could trigger by implementing its ‘populist’ measures, as the ruling parties call them.

No one should be surprised by how disengaged authorities are from reality. From this point of view, the present time begins to look more and more like the situation prior to 1989 when some were being forced to do a work they weren’t good at while suitable people were being seconded to entirely different jobs. An old-time joke is very telling in that respect: a journalist paid a visit to a village to report on the autumn harvesting campaign, but he cannot find anyone in the village. After loosing around, he eventually spots an old woman sitting on a bench in front of her house. Asked where everyone was, the woman says the villagers are all at the cultural club. ‘What for?’ asks the reporter. ‘They’re learning English’, the woman answers. ‘All right, but who is working in the fields then? The reporter insists. And the woman answers, in English: ‘I don’t know, maybe the students!’ (school pupils and students used to be forced to work on farms harvesting the crops as there was a shortage of labour in agriculture).

Our question is who will answer for the current crisis and for its consequences? Still the students?

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