IVE LEARNED TO LIVE WITH sporadic hot water, stray dogs on dirty streets, uneven and decrepit sidewalks that can twist ankles, ignorance and rudeness, even a mass of inferior infrastructure. These are daily nuisances. But after 18 months, I cant seem to get over a much larger problem, the constant corruption in Romania. Its more than gotten old.
Just last week, I carried my camera around town for a few days, intending to take some everyday shots of my surroundings, especially on the university campus where I work. Near a store frequented by students, a small, hand-scrawled sign caught my eye: Vand lucrare de diploma la drept international public and a mobile telephone number. Somebody was offering to sell all of the work needed to complete law school, specifically in international public law (unlike the American system, law school here is only an undergraduate program).
Though positively despicable, its common here for students to bribe professors and deans for grades, even in law and medical school, and in particular, law school graduates have to pay much larger bribes than most professions in order to get a job. I guess selling or buying academic work is no different, but Id not seen such a brazen attempt before. And no doubt, someone bought it and I sure dont want that person as my attorney. Not that America or any place else is 100 percent clean, but I really cant imagine this back home. Even if someone tried it, they wouldnt be dumb enough to post a sign AND include a phone number. Here nobody bats an eyelash.
I was disgusted. I immediately wondered how many students Ive taught or worked with do this kind of thing. I almost took a picture but kept walking. I went for a quick lunch, but that sign was still in my head. After downing a bowl of chicken soup, I saw the same sign taped to a tree. Then another one, just across the street. Now I wanted the photo. As I was shooting this little piece of injustice, two young men, obviously students, were posting signs for a musical event.
They asked me what I was doing. I replied in Romanian that I just had to take a photo of the law school sign, that it was just incredible. One asked where I was from and then switched to pretty good English.
Why is it so incredible? he asked.
I am reading this correctly, right, that this person is selling all of their law school work?
Yes. But why is that unusual? And maybe its not his work.
On that note, I bid adieu to the puzzled-looking students and continued on my way. This was just days after Romania was declared the most-corrupt country in Europe and one of the most in the world by Transparency International, a respected, Berlin-based non-governmental organization. This was also just after a referendum election for a new, modernized Constitution (needed for European Union membership), which passed, but was plagued by well-publicized fraud allegations including ballot-stuffing and voter incentives, not to mention the governments $1.1 million vote-yes ad campaign in this land of $100 per month average salaries. And three Cabinet-level ministers recently resigned amid serious corruption allegations, including, ever so ironically, the Minister of European Integration, a person with a major role in helping Romania combat corruption, and overcoming other hurdles, to join the EU in 2007. That, by the way, may be delayed as Romania is the only candidate country not to have earned functional market economy status, having just been rejected again by Brussels. Corruption, with its counterproductive, economic ripple effect, is largely the culprit. The EU, on so many fronts, is simply another world. The longer I live here, sometimes I cant even believe the 2007 invitation date, which many Romanians still misconstrue as some kind of mandate, whether earned or not. Guess again.
Corruption, of course, has existed throughout the world for a long time. In the past couple years, America has been rocked and revolted by Enron, MCI WorldCom and Tyco, these sickening corporate scandals fueled by executive greed. That stuff goes on here too, but few seem to care. Well, now and then you see a businessman, a Romanian mayor, or a member of Parliament or the Cabinet hauled off or resigning in shame, and it makes the news for a night and these poster boys (and girls) are trophy examples to try to show the Romanian people, or more importantly, those watchful bureaucrats at the EU, that there is a crackdown, or at least an attempt thereof.
What is different in Romania is that corruption exists at every level you can imagine, from big bucks to chump change. There are supposedly seven words in Romanian for bribe, though I only know four. Corruption here, though not as frowned upon as other places, ranges from payoffs to get a job at the local Chamber of Commerce or many other places of employment, to hefty bribes to avoid compulsory military service or get out of an arrest. Lets not even talk about judges. Or how about the common practice of not giving a receipt and keeping the payment, skimming bank tellers and cashiers, paying principals to get your kid in the right school, bus drivers who pick up passengers roadside then pocket the fares, bribing a doctor for an appointment sooner than later or the hospital nurse and custodian to make sure you have changed sheets and water to the really ridiculous like a train station security guard offering an unsolicited safety tip about your backpack or offering to help buy a ticket, then angrily demanding a commission of $2 or $3, not insignificant relative to salaries or train fares. Its endless.
Romanias high ranking in corruption came as no surprise to me or other foreigners living here probably not to Romanians either nor was Romanias recent tie for the least happy country in the world based on a British magazine survey. No wonder. The good news? Most Romanians I know and with whom Ive spoken loathe this activity, but alas, its the system and they are stuck with it. Pay to play, or youre not in the game. It starts with the government and other power centers, working its way out like a virus, people say. VIPs from the U.S. Ambassador and other diplomats to international executives have criticized the system while encouraging reform that could lead to more foreign investments, only to be smacked down by paranoid government bigwigs. At least its being discussed more in the open, some arrests have been made and there is a new anti-corruption law and task force. Still, this isnt going away any time soon.
Romanians have a favorite saying that translates to In Romania, all things are possible. Rest assured, they dont mean it in the American Dream sense.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania. In recent weeks, Andy visited the American University in Bulgaria, which is now collaborating with his career center, and he won a grant to attend an NGO Youth Forum in Serbia & Montenegro. He will finish his Peace Corps tour at the end of July, 2004.