The reactions the media, the civil society and the institutions have had after the Colectiv club fire point to an important change within the Romanian society. This essay aims to focus on the key issues that led to the Colectiv fire, and interpret the effects the fire had on public institutions and the collective mentality of the people. It evaluates mainly the topics : socio-institutional change and improvement of transparency within state governing bodies through socio-historical analysis and descriptive analysis alongside comparisons between the pre-communist and post-communist state. What the essay concludes is that in order to take advantage of the revivalist attitudes that have been formed in the wake of the Colectiv incident, socio-cultural values should be promoted by reformed state institutions in order to change public opinion and increase the involvement of the civil society.
What led to the Colectiv club fire?
On the 30th of October, a Romanian rock band was launching their album at the Colectiv club n Bucharest to a crowd of hundreds of people. During the show, the ceiling caught fire and the only exit from the space was blocked, trapping hundreds of people in. This incident put the Romanian authorities to the test and instigated a street movement.In the times that preceded the Colectiv fire, Romania was still in a period of defining how it could exist as a modern democracy. After the Romanian revolution in 1989, the country has existed in a sense of transition that was constantly looking for its core values and identities. Some of the biggest problems have been the corruption that was still influential within the political and institutional systems and the continuous nostalgic reminiscences of the communist years both in the civil society and within state institutions. The Colectiv fire was a significant event that put into the foreground features of liberalism and of what a modern democracy should entail. The civic movement that followed and the public uproar led to the fall of the Ponta government and to further investigations into public institutions such as The Inspectorate for Emergency Situations (ISU) and the medical system. The idea that people need to die in order for change to happen has taken over the public consciousness and it brings back memories from the 1989 revolution when hundreds of people died in the only violent revolution of the Eastern block.
To tackle such long-standing socio-institutional problems Patapievici (Cited in Preda,2012) had offered four requirements for an enrichment of institutional culture:
- Have a rational strategy of what it is to be done;
- Have each department do well what they’re supposed to do;
- Have the individual functionality of each department coherently add up to a global finality of the whole;
- Implement internal feedback within departments, not feedback that comes from further up the hierarchical ladder.
Clearly institutional problems were recognised in the past. After the fall of communism, the institutions of the state attempted an internal restructuring: but the post-communism model remained state-centered. Preda (2012) argues that the way institutions of the state evolved after the fall of communism does not encompass a negation of the previous framework when the same institution is taken over by a new democratic government and changes are done to the surface—changes of names and titles. Martin (2011: 62) expands on the institutional problem, classifying it as a part of a vicious circle consisting of three main crises (political, socio-cultural and institutional) that Romania still faced in 2011. Personnel was inherited from the former regime by the new institutions and key positions were blocked by unqualified people that invidiously held a socio-political presence and status. The political sphere was also involved in the internal order of the institutions, in many cases by occupying key positions (Martin, 2011; Preda, 2012).
Socio-institutional degradation carries along with it a devaluation of values and of the sense of social identity (Martin, 2011). What I would argue is that in the case of the Colectiv fire, the lack of institutional values has had a major impact on the creation of the problem and the way it was tackled. The lack of efficient middle management within state institutions has transpired into a defective translation of its core values within the society. According to Durkheim society forms our mind and controls our behavior: therefore with the cultural and social situation outlined above, the individual’s core values have somewhat transformed into what Durkheim calls anomie and contribute to a general lack of identity and social involvement (Jones, 1986: 82-114).
The need for a social institution, such as the emergency services, to function properly is not only at times a matter of public safety but it is also a key link into the chain of causality that forms a democratic state. The development of a socio-cultural set of values that can be formed from the institution functioning effectively can influence public opinion and determine the involvement of the civil society. For example, the more managerial control the Fire department has and the further detached it is from a dysfunctional central state, the more it can define its own identity and promote its own set of values. The values can then be adopted by the civil society and implemented outside of the state institution and might change and adapt within society and then they might get forwarded through NGOs and trade unions to get debated within the government. Therefore it can be said that the lax attitude towards health and safety and fire safety regulations has been nurtured in the collective consciousness by this identity crisis within the state institutions.
In the case of the Colectiv fire, fire safety abnormalities were found on more than one level. The initial general reaction was to direct the blame at the club owners. Public officials have fought after the fire to not take any responsibility for the events, but the public’s skepticism has, even before having any proof, given birth to the uproars that caused massive protests. Fire safety regulations failed to be implemented at a number of levels: the emergency inspectorate’s prevention visits, the owner’s lack of awareness and implementation, and the pyrotechnics firm’s incompetence. These are all outcomes of the dysfunctionality of one of the key public institutions: the emergency services, which, as mentioned above is a key link in the causality chain.
What will determine a revival? Was there a revival?
Unlike the 1989 revolution, the Colectiv fire was not a social movement, but rather an unfortunate tragedy that unintentionally created a movement. The public outrage and protests that followed, which saw 30,000 people on the streets of Romania, have been fueled by a continuous set of disappointments that were already challenging the patience of the people. In consideration of the aforementioned analysis on public institutions it is therefore essential to stipulate that an institutional restructuring should be one of the key outcomes of the revival needed for change to encourage a larger social involvement in issues of public politics.
Since the levels of political and social involvement are determined by people’s personal traits, they can be influenced by context (Zaichkowsky, 1986) and are also influenced by the significance a particular event has on an individual (Buturoiu, Lupescu, 2011). The Colectiv fire alongside the lack of public trust in the state institutions can be viewed as a potentially significant context that would lead to a social revival. As Durkheim defines it, the post Colectiv moments can be considered moments of ‘effervescence’—a period of creation and renewal when people are brought into more intimate relationships with one another (Clark, 2015). Facebook, for example, was an important communication channel that intensified the feeling of immediate involvement. From a lack of trust in state structures, the relatives of the victims have turned to the online social platform to initially look for their missing relatives and then to put forward requests for donations. The response from the public was intense, efficient and immediate. Queues were formed outside blood donation centers and many people took the initiative to compile lists of any medical requirements the hospitals might have.
Soon after this ‘effervescence’, the people took to the streets of Bucharest in what initially was supposed to be a public commemoration of the victims but later turned into a protest against the whole political class. Balme and Chabanet (2008) suggest that protest from the civic society is mainly used as a channel to influence policy-making through political mobilization. In this particular case, the cause of the protest was an evident emotional response to an event that caused public grievance and a valve that releases the pressure from the public outrage caused by the lack of trust in the system. The protesters asked for a number of resignations: the mayor of the administrative area of Bucharest where the club was located, the government and even the Orthodox Patriarch. In a reaction that many wished for but not many believed might happen, the Romanian prime-minister, Victor Ponta resigned and the Romanian government fell. The protests continued even after Ponta’s resignation but the lack of structure of the civic society and the presence of crowd agent provocateurs diluted the public movement.
During consultations of the Romanian president with political parties for the construction of a new government, Klaus Iohannis invited representatives of the civil society in his office for negotiations. The announcement was made one day before the consultations, giving the civil society little time for preparation. The presidential cabinet retained the power to have the last say on who attends the meeting. Furthermore, to keep in line with the main characteristic of institutions of the state—the lack of transparency—the meeting took place behind close doors. It appears like Iohannis was aware that the more integrated into the decision-making process the groups are, the less likely they are to protest (Balme and Chabanet, 2008).
I would argue that with the authorities’ reaction Iohannis indirectly acknowledged the need for heroes and role-models that Romania has had, and still has. In an attempt to comfort a grieving society, he knighted, after only 3 days of the fire, two of the deceased that have allegedly gone back into the fire to save others. Other notable reactions from the representatives of the state include the declarations of the, then minister of health, Nicolae Banicioiu and the secretary of state in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Raed Arafat and their eventual controversy. The two dignitaries stated after the fire that the medical system has all the equipment and resources necessary to treat the patients that got injured in the fire, that no help is needed from the European Union and also that the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations had no knowledge of the existence of the Colectiv club. All of these statements have eventually proved to be false (Realitatea.net). The public trust in state institutions has been further aggravated by the way the Colectiv fire was managed and the way information was withheld and manipulated. Since the fire, the minister of health was dismissed along with the government as were the three managers of the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations.
In an attempt to calm down a grieving society that was spinning in an anxious state on social media and to try and restore the trust into state institutions, the two government representatives Banicioiu and Arafat have prolonged a behavior inherited from a former state-centered society of secrecy and lies sprinkled with communist overtones. The journalist-led investigations that followed have managed to pin-point the ineffectiveness that institutions such as the emergency inspectorate: that was still subordinated to the army, and was presented in an almost comical pursue of the evidence within the institution (Tolontan, 2015). The excessive bureaucratization was the probable cause of the inability to provide accurate information but might also be the culprit in the collective consciousness attitude towards institutions of the state.
The mainstream media tried to capitalize on the event by boosting their ratings with uncensored images of the dead and dubious fundraisers for the relatives of the people injured in the fire (CNA, 2015). Buturoiu and Lupescu (2015) stress that even in contexts where people have resistant attitudes, due to the political or contextual factors, the media still exerts an influence on public opinion. Martin (2011) analyses the cultural crises of Romania and identifies mass-media as a tool used by the political class to occupy the collective mind with pseudo-problems and to support a ‘national program of idiotisation’ through giving the people ‘bread and circuses’ (Martin, 2011)
In contrast to mainstream media, Catalin Tolontan and his team of journalists launched an investigation into the accuracy of the information presented by the governmental bodies. They were the ones that surfaced the information that the Emergency Inspectorate had knowledge that the Colectiv club exists through a fax sent by another event production company to ask for assistance for an event one month before the Colectiv fire. The availability of that information and the way it was discovered stirred the Romanian society even more and urged parents of the young deceased to demand explanations and justifications from the state institutions. This comes to show that in topics that are hard to be approached directly by the public, the media still has a power to influence their attitudes and behaviors ( Buturoiu and Lupescu, 2015)
The Romanian National Television (TVR) has further confirmed the institutional mayhem the state governs over by not presenting any news of the event on the night it occurred and blamed the lack of regulations for breaking news. The head of the news department has since resigned. TVR and the Romanian Society of Radio and Television (SRR) should be the subject of a thorough investigation that is beyond the scope of this essay. This would be beneficial for a further understanding of the governance of public bodies and their effect on the creation and fortification of morals and values within the Romanian collective consciousness.
If I turn now to examine the immediate changes and effects, the Colectiv fire has undoubtedly raised awareness within club owners and the general public on health and fire safety regulations. Several clubs in Romania have shut down at their own initiative, others have closed down for refurbishments to meet the fire safety requirements. The legislation that previously allowed clubs to function at the owners’ risk in regards to fire regulations has been tightened and several inspections took place in clubs and spaces of public interest in Romania. At a glance, the situation looks dire with 80% of clubs not respecting fire safety norms, 20% of hotels and 36.5% of schools. The Emergency Inspectorate (ISU) also seems to be overwhelmed by requests for inspections and fire safety notices, having had 2000 requests for events in the past 3 months. A restructuring of ISU is therefore needed, or the construction of a new body that can tackle the problem in a realistic manner (Tolontan, 2015).
In the light of the event, the Romanian president has passed a law that prohibits buildings with a high seismic risk to be used in any way that would allow them to gather large numbers of people on the premises. The old center in Bucharest, an area filled with bars and night clubs has been heavily affected by the law but also public cinemas. Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director and Palm D’Or winner at Cannes has written an open letter to the Minister of Culture in which he acknowledges the struggles that Romanian cinemas has faced over the years and the decline in public cinemas from 600 in 1989 to none today. Whilst there is no debate over the necessity of health and fire safety regulations, the insensible way they appear to be implemented created long discussions in the press and on social media. The new safety regulations have forced all the public cinemas in Bucharest to close and the lack of financial support towards a cultural infrastructure is to be detrimental to the creation and support of the core values Romania so desperately needs to obtain.
The Colectiv fire has made a whole nation grieve the loss of hope in the form of the killing of a younger generation, but it also made it wipe its tears, walk out into the streets and get involved in issues of public politics. Despite the protests being seen as an effect of a collective trauma, they were also a materialization of public uproar and lack of trust in the public institutions. This essay has encapsulated a key moment in Romanian history and focused on an interpretation of the reactions that followed shortly after the fire from public authorities, the media and the civil society and their domino effect within the Romanian socio-political scene. Based on the evidence presented here, the crises faced by Romania prior to the Colectiv fire summed up with the event itself determined a post-Colectiv Romania sprinkled with revivalist overtones.
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