When I deplaned from my comfortable KLM flight on a late September afternoon at the ultra-modern Henri Coanda International Airport at Otopeni, Romania, I was greeted by stifling humid heat inside and out. People were milling about with sweaty brows from the lack of air conditioning use. I picked up the key and contract to my rental car and hurried outside. It was somewhat more bearable – at least there was a slight breeze.
The rental lot gate keeper required a small bribe to let me in. The employee who handed me the key to the car spent an inordinate amount of time presenting all the features on the car, treating me gingerly as if I was incapable of comprehension. I probably drove more vehicles and more years than he had imagined or I cared to admit. The VW Jetta would be my means of transportation for the next 12 days – no crowded trains, buses, metro, trolleybuses, or trams. I had spent an extra $55 on a GPS, knowing that it would be my lifeline between being utterly lost and finding where I wanted to go. Road signs, I learned the hard way last year, were scarce and incomprehensible at best. I never knew when roads ended sharply onto pastures as far as my eyes could see.
With a condescending smirk on his face, the Avis attendant allowed me to drive off, not before tipping the gate attendant again. Because remuneration is so miserly for most people, they supplement wages with bribes. Little has changed since the communist regime. And thus began my journey of discovery and reportage into the new world order of capitalism infected by neo-communism of European lineage.
Every 350 meters, the GPS voice warned me of roundabouts. After a while, I felt like I was in roundabout hell. As long as I followed the only traffic rule that Romanian drivers respected, the car already in the roundabout has priority, I was safe. As I become more comfortable with roundabouts, I realized that they saved me money, time, and Diesel. This was welcome news since gas and Diesel were $10 a gallon. Diesel Maxx, a bio fuel mixture with rapeseed oil, was almost $11 a gallon. We used rapeseed oil to cook with under Ceausescu’s regime when sun flower cooking oil was hard to find. I could have sworn my Diesel smelled like French fries.
Traffic rules were mere humorous suggestions. Only visitors like me respected or followed them. Drivers passed each other on the left, on the right, on the sidewalk, on the pedestrian median, on the tram tracks, parked wherever they wished, drove very fast and in reverse in the middle of a multi-lane street. The few traffic police, Politia Rutiera, hardly kept up with the infractors. Now and then I would see a car with a boot on or a speeding car stopped by a policeman who was writing a ticket. Most drivers get out of paying fines by offering bribes. They know someone who knows someone else and thus the ticket is voided, no lesson learned.
I finally understood the condescension of the rental lot attendant. Male drivers considered female drivers a nuisance on the road that prevented male chauvinists from reaching their destinations faster, like a fly in a fresh glass of milk, an attitude left from the communist era when women were generally not allowed to drive and few actually passed the very stringent driving test.
Stations used attendants to pump gas for patrons, especially for women. Perhaps men thought we were not competent enough to pump our own gas. I enjoyed this service immensely, not having to get my hands dirty with Diesel. I gladly paid the tip.
Drivers honked angrily and constantly at each other, leaving those driving within the speed limit in a halo of dust. The noise pollution in big cities was huge. Pedestrians were target practice for the angry, rude, and hurried drivers. The mortality rate of pedestrians was unacceptably high.
I became exhaustingly defensive and tense in my driving, watching for goats, sheep, cows, shepherds, buggies, horses, bad drivers, and foolish pedestrians darting across busy highways and roads with total disregard for their own safety.
I was driving cautiously slow in the Carpathian Mountains through endless hairpin curves, my four-cylinder Jetta struggling to climb the steep incline. The GPS’ purple image of the twisted road looked like a heart monitor in atrial fibrillation. I did not dare look much to my left or right – the huge drops made my stomach churn and gave me vertigo. Yet drivers would honk and pass me with total disregard for the double lines painted on the road or the risk to their lives and the lives of others. They were on a mission to get wherever they were going really fast. The roads were littered with smashed vehicles and upturned 18-wheelers, taking up sometimes 5 hours or more to clear the road. Forty miles from my medieval town destination, Sighisoara, the driver of an 18-wheeler had overturned his fully loaded rig, blocking both lanes, and stopping traffic for six hours. I only hope that he survived this terrible accident that he alone had caused.
Many things have improved in the lives of Romanians since the fall of communism in 1989. Capitalism and entrepreneurship are flourishing because regulatory bureaucracy is insignificant when compared to regulations in the west. But unchecked and unpunished corruption coupled with expected briberies have reached pandemic proportions.
Business is conducted on two levels – there is the legal contract for taxation purposes, and the “sub rosa” contract, hiding the real transaction. Usually, the written contracts contain lower figures in order to escape taxation. The oral, under the table contracts, during which bribes and percentages are paid to various middlemen, are really the bona fide contracts. Written contractual documents are so arcane and complex that state notaries have very lucrative offices, raking in more money than attorneys.
State owned enterprises are scavenged by various interested parties who are appointed to run them, with total disregard for public/private ownership or accountability. Those running and/or managing the plant become “ticks” that “suck” the plant’s resources to bolster their own private companies, just like they used to do under the communist regime.
Case in point, Oltchim S.A., one of the largest chemical companies in Romania with over 3,300 employees, has not paid its employees in months and is now bankrupt. The economic crisis of 2008, mismanagement and theft of resources by employee “ticks” that drained resources and sucked the lifeblood of Oltchim for their own private interests were the undoing of Oltchim S.A. Oltchim S.A. used to be the Ramnicu Vilcea Chemical Works during Ceausescu’s communist regime. It became a joint-stock company in 1990 by post-communist government decision.
According to Dan Straut, Oltchim had become a victim of the fall 2008 economic crisis when Petrom, the main supplier of inputs for Oltchim, closed its petrochemical installations. Oltchim is heavily in debt, owing 250 million euros to AVAS (the state authority) and 147 million euros in utilities. Oltchim is a major player in the Romanian economy because it produces chemicals used in 80 percent of consumer products and is a main exporter. (September 10, 2012)
While I was in Romania, the scandal and the circus that followed Oltchim’s inability to meet its payroll for six month or more and pay its creditors, placed two camps at odds on a daily basis – those who wanted to maintain the state ownership of Oltchim, promising to raise the 45 million euros needed to save it, and those who wanted to completely privatize it in order to reorganize it and weed out the waste, unaccountability, and corruption. Dan Diaconescu, a TV station owner, misled the whole country that he would raise the necessary funds to give workers their back wages and pay creditors, coming up short and empty-handed with only 3 million euros in a bag from mysterious European sources. The corruption and mystery continue.
My hotel in Brasov was hosting a Cybercrime Seminar sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, American Express, EBay, Microsoft, Western Union, MoneyGram International, and Trust wave. During discussions encouraging Romanian authorities to pass tougher laws on cyber criminals and offering help and expertise, a participating Romanian judge took umbrage with the suggestion and pointed out that foreigners cannot come into their country and tell them what to do. In other words, we like to maintain the status quo. So what if hapless Americans and westerners with money to burn are defrauded by young Romanian cyber criminals, often underage, by hundreds of millions of dollars?
It appears that old habits die hard. Sixty years of communism, theft, and abuse of power are hard to overcome even though a strange form of capitalism has taken strong roots in Romania. The shadow communism never went away and is re-emerging with a vengeance in public life with empty promises of free food, easy money, and free housing. The corruption that emerged from communism got more sophisticated and exploded on a grander scale, aided by the Internet age and the ability to travel freely and quickly across many time zones.