Recent developments have given the Romanian people much to celebrate. Last week, the European Parliament elections saw voter participation exceed 50%, a resounding rejection of the corruption-fueled party in power, the Social Democrats Party (PSD). It also showed resounding support for the Romanian President’s referendum, which aimed to put the brakes on the government’s attempt to loosen corruption laws so that high-level officials could be let off scot-free.
These victories were followed one day later by a Romanian Supreme Court decision to jail Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the PSD and widely seen as the most powerful man in Romania, for abuse of power. Happily, not even an earlier letter from US president Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani pressing for leniency in anti-corruption measures had an impact.
Yet this is only the beginning. Many challenges remain for the people of Romania, far too many of which are exacerbated by corruption.
To give you a sense of how prevalent corruption is in Romania, look no further than its impact on women trying to access health care. If you are a mother-to-be in Romania, you will, in all likelihood, have to pay a bribe for maternity care. And not just one bribe. You may have to compete. If your bribe isn’t high enough, someone else will get that care and you won’t.
You weigh up the costs. Sometimes, it’s more cost effective to choose private health care, only because, as the bribes accrue in the public health care system, the costs become comparable. Given that you often don’t have the funds yourself – Romania has one of the highest poverty rates in Europe – you may need to consider a loan shark, which opens up a whole other world of pain.
If you choose to go down the public health care route, and you don’t pay a bribe, you risk the health of your newborn. Accounts of bribery that were shocking 10 years ago are still commonplace today. If you don’t have the funds to supplement your care, you won’t be given the full complement of services. It is not unheard of for a woman from a rural community to endure child birth without an epidural – if she wants one - simply because she doesn’t have the money to pay for it.
While corruption in healthcare impacts everyone, given the nature of women’s healthcare needs, they are more susceptible to its impact - and are frequently the most exploited. And they often don’t have the information they need to avoid being manipulated.
All of this happening under the watchful, albeit deeply troubled, eye of the European Union.
What is to be done?
As is often the case when politicians feel like they can operate with impunity, it falls to civil society to apply the pressure. Across Romania, small local community-driven organisations are taking a stand. Take Funky Citizens, self-described “professional troublemakers” who operate from Bucharest, for example. Their director, Elena Calistru is feisty and young. Her goal: to make sure women have access to the information they need to protect their rights. In some cases, women don’t know what services should be available to them. They don’t know what to ask for. “If you are not good at getting the info you have no idea,” Calistru says. “Maybe someone can easily manipulate you.”
What is clear is that access to information is key. One idea that Funky Citizens is considering – as a way to expose the level of corruption in healthcare – is the establishment of an online “satisfaction forum.” Are you getting your bribe’s worth?
Funky Citizens is one of many groups looking to effect change in Romania. This week’s encouraging developments will fortify civil society organisations across the country.
For its part, the European Union is focused on high-level corruption in Romania. There has been much debate and discussion around the controversial nomination of the former anti-corruption chief in Romania, Laura Kövesi, to become the first European Public Prosecutor. In May, the European Commission threatened legal action against Romania unless the Romanian government took steps to protect the rule of law.
In a letter to Romanian officials, outgoing European Commission vice-president, Frans Timmermans, outlined the many ways in which the rule of law is being chipped away in Romania and threatened triggering the Rule of Law Framework if steps are not taken to reverse these trends. This is significant as it puts Romania in the same dubious club as Poland and Hungary.
While attention to these issues is of course vital, the selection of Kövesi as the European Public Prosecutor is not going to change the lives of the women of Romania - who are impacted by corruption in their daily lives - anytime soon. They want to know that they are receiving the healthcare they are entitled to, and that the children they are bringing into the world are born healthy. The Romanian presidency of the European Council comes to a close at the end of June. As the spotlight shifts away from Romania, it will be incumbent on all who share these women’s desire to give their children a healthy life, to stand with them, and combat corruption.
The health of a newborn baby should not be determined by the bribes a mother-to-be is forced to pay.
Bart Scheffers is a program officer with the transparency, accountability and participation division of the Open Society Foundation’s Initiative for Europe, where he currently leads the portfolio ‘countering state and regulatory capture.’
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