Monday, 6 February 2017

Romania's protests

A remarkable victory appears to have been won by anti-corruption demonstrators in Romania. The largest street protests – involving a reported half a million people, that in a country with a total population of 20 million - since the fall of Ceausescu have forced the government to abandon a policy to decriminalise corruption by public officials if the sums involved are less than US$ 48,500. By way of context, average GDP per capita in Romania is about US$ 9,500 (2015 figure, a record high). This policy, derived from a government decree, rather than from parliament, would have had the effect not just of stopping investigations of corruption below the specified level but also releasing from prison thousands of officials already found guilty of such corruption.

Corruption in Romania, as in many other countries, has a long and complex history, and it long predates both the communist and post-communist eras. However, in recent times there have been significant attempts through the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) to tackle the problem, resulting in hundreds of prosecutions and convictions, including that of former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase. Even so, Transparency International’s corruption index rates Romania 57 out of 176 countries (Denmark and New Zealand are joint first in the list, Somalia is at the bottom), making it one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. Unsurprisingly, then, the EU Commission was also strongly opposed to the proposed decree.

Corruption is not just a crime like any other. As its name suggests, it corrodes, deforms and ultimately destroys the moral and legal fabric of civilized society, whether within politics or business organizations (see Burke & Cooper, 2009). Within organization studies, the foundational work of Max Weber shows how one of the distinctive advantages of the rational-legal bureaucracy is to both render illegitimate and to monitor and control corruption. This, indeed, is one of the ethically distinctive features of such bureaucracies (see du Gay, 2000). The Romanian protestors are absolutely right to see corruption as a foundational, fundamental issue.

At a time when so much is happening in the world that seems to be beyond our control, it is heartening to see that peaceful protest can influence political decisions. People can, still, make a difference. In particular, the success of these protests gives hope to the beleaguered cosmopolitans in what I have described elsewhere as the new politics of cosmopolitans and locals. In the UK, with Brexit, the US, with Trump, and in many other countries such as France, Germany and Hungary populist localism is in the ascendant. But the Romanian protests can be understood as a revolt of the cosmopolitans. According to Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Professor of Democracy Studies at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the former leader of Romania’s anticorruption Coalition for a Clean Parliament: “… the people of deep, poor, dependent Romania nevertheless returned the families of their corrupt patron politicians to parliament, as they hope for more redistributive policies in return. In contrast, the crowds in the big cities are made of English-speaking Romanians working in multinationals and NGOs”.

The conjunction of cosmopolitan Romanians and the EU Commission is a reminder that, whatever populist rhetoric suggests, these are not some out of touch establishment bent on doing down the people. On the contrary, populist localism benefits not the poor and marginalised but corrupt political elites (in the genuine sense of the term). The most important guarantor of universal well-being is the rule of law, which is why the independent judiciary are under such attack in Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America for insisting that governments remain within the law. The successful demand by the Romanian protestors that their officials must be subject to the rule of law is a remarkable and timely inspiration to countries around the world and, especially, to the cosmopolitans currently at the lash end of populist localism.

Burke, R.J. & Cooper, C.L. (eds.) Research Companion to Corruption in Organizations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Du Gay, P. In Praise of Bureaucracy. Weber, Organization and Ethics. London: Sage, 2000.


  1. This is a very interesting posting that should be followed by many more on the topic of corruption. First, a quick correction - I notice that Romania is not the country perceived as corrupt by its citizens in the EU - this privilege lies with Greece. Second, I think that there is an interesting and complex relation between perceived and actual corruption. I know how difficult it is to operationalize actual corruption but we should not give up. When talking about corruption in Greece, I often hear the retort "The bureaucrats in Brussels are no less corrupt" and I think that this too is a symptom of corruption - to regard corruption as natural and everybody as being corrupt, including those who pretend not to be.

    More importantly, I am interested how corruption finds fertile ground in societies and cultures with strong family and tribal bonds (where to be a citizen is much less defining as a characteristic of the person than tribal allegiances). I find particularly interesting and disturbing the fact that an ethic of caring (i.e. privileging those close to one) turns into an ethic of corruption, where the corruption of the patriarch is entirely excused and even legitimized, as long as he takes care of his dependents.

  2. Sociologists use the language of "path-dependency" to describe the cultural power of the past - Robert Putnam's explanation of the "backwardness" of the Italian south is a prime example.
    Sadly, it is not just the alienating and amoral communist tradition which weighs on Romania but that of the Ottomans and, in particular, their vassels - the Phanariots - who milked the country for more than a century and established the political culture which the PSD party continues....


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