Not Everyone in Romania is Corrupt

by Steven van Groningen on 2 June, 2010

Oops, now I did it, I wrote down the C word and it is staring back at me. Yes, corruption is a big problem in Romania and it costs the society a lot of money each year.

International rankings place Romania among the worst in Europe. A walk through Bucharest, a few talks with local businessmen and reading the press complete the picture about corruption.

However this doesn’t mean that everyone in Romania is corrupt or that it is impossible to live in Romania without paying bribes. Actually, I am getting a bit tired of explaining that you can be -very- successful in Romania without having to give in to corruption.

Because of the poor corruption rating of Romania, many people seem to think or even accept that it is necessary to pay a bribe in order to get certain problems solved. This is not the case.

I have worked in Romania for 14 years out of the last 18  (find my CV here)  and I am proud to have been able to solve our problems without ever paying a bribe.

Paying Bribes is not Necessary

My experience is that, if you make it clear you are not going to pay anything beyond what you are officially supposed to pay, you will still be able to solve almost all problems. Yes, things may take longer and occasionally you will lose opportunities to others that have a more “flexible” view or you might lose money you shouldn’t be losing but that is part of doing business in a corrupt environment. We may complain about this and we do. But we should also say that you can make money and be profitable doing business in Romania without paying bribes.

Some companies distinguish between paying bribes, that is, paying someone to do something he is not supposed to do and a facilitating payment, which is paying someone to do what he was supposed to do in the first place. In both cases the recipient of the money is abusing his power to obtain personal benefit and this is wrong.

Now that we are on definitions, active bribery is the act of giving the bribe, passive bribery is that act of receiving the bribe, This is a bit funny definition because in most cases it is the one who receives the money  who plays the active part.

This is probably also a good moment to state that we never allow anybody in our organization to receive any money or benefits from third parties. We don’t accept any form of corruption, active nor passive. In fact, a lot of companies have this policy.

No one will have to pay anything to anybody in our bank in order to get a loan, a contract or whatever (perceived) benefit, you either qualify or not.  At the same time offering bribes will not change our behavior towards a client that is not respecting its obligations. I remember a few years back a client with a problem loan who was quite aggressive and asked me what “needed to happen” in order for the bank not to execute the collateral. I suggested him to start repaying his loan.

Are you part of the problem or part of the solution ?

If you don’t like corruption, don’t be part of it. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution. We cannot complain about corruption and at the same time use the “system” to our benefit whenever a “problem” needs to be solved. Building permits, tickets for drunken driving, tax payments. Make up your mind.

I understand that it is more difficult for small companies to deal with this and that it is often a pragmatic business decision to pay than to spend more time and resources while your competitors get the business. But the mechanism remains.

If you think that this happens al over the world, you are probably right. There are rotten apples everywhere but this should never be an excuse to do the same or not to fight against it.

Like in sports, it is much nicer  and more satisfying to win when you play by the rules. Maybe you win less often or earn less money. If that is the price you have to pay to be able to look yourself in the eye in the mirror every morning, I can can tell you it is worth it.


{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

bizzar June 3, 2010 at 09:27

This is a nice debate subject – “are you part of the problem or part of the solution ?” is a good question, but let’s consider the overall economical and social status quo: we live in a country in which the main sources of information (TV + main newspapers) are providing only panem et circenses (almost no real information and let’s not talk now about moral values…which are in most cases mocked) , where the road to success is represented by people who did some kind of “dirty business” in the past, morality and adherence to the laws is thought to be overrated (unfortunately, in Romania you are considered “silly” if you go by the book) and where everybody knows the problems, and a solution we adopted the Italian “omerta”:everything is working fine and people usually don’t think or talk about these things.
Adhering and upholding to a “moral high ground” is in a way easier if the consequences are manageable. But there are some cases in which you may be forced to “to do a facilitating payment”, for instance in matters of medical care (there are cases in which the people wait in line for emergency care because they are not on “the short” list, in this case you won’t have the time or resources to wait for “your turn” and the system doesn’t have the proper channels to which you can address this issue and be solved in a decent amount of time) or the example you gave: small firms which struggle to survive this economic turmoil…
On the other hand – yes, I believe that there are people who are not into this “bribe game” and live&do business in a lawful way (in the end, bribing&facilitating payment are against the law – some people keep forgetting this idea). And thing are changing, I hope you saw some changes for the better in Romania in the last 14 years…and I am happy to know that in the company that you work everything is how it’s supposed to be.
On the funny side – from the rankings Greece seems to be our business and moral “model” in the EU (no wonder here, I am sure that’s why we share a similar economical crisis – a word which by the way has a Greek origin).
I would personally choose the Nordic Counties as model and my reasons are simple: they are on top of the list you provided (international rankings – actually they are on top on almost every list regarding standards of living, opportunities for business, etc.) and they provide…good music :)

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SvG June 3, 2010 at 15:58

Thanks for your comment, indeed it is important to have a debate on this. I got fed up with the negative side of this discussion and believe that by showing that you can be successful without being part of is a positive way to ask for attention in this matter. I understand I am in a somewhat comfortable position as big corporate. Indeed, there is something to learn from being in the same league as Greece. That is why I don’t like the argument that this is happening “everywhere”. There is no everywhere, just different shades of white or grey.

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Mihai February 9, 2016 at 03:24

As a very late comment on a very actual topic I’d like to add that we, the Romanians, reached higher levels of sophistication on the corruption subject compared to the Greeks. If only we consider a very old expression “a se chivernisi” that is the effigy of being corrupt, of becoming wealthy by any means especially from a position of power while the etymology of the word “chivernisi” “κυβέρνηση” =”kyvérnisi” in latin script, wonder of wonders, means Government in Greek. Talk about linguistical irony. I couldn’t stop grinning when I first learned this little bit of trivia. How odd: a Government member who’s only goal is “Sa se chiverniseasca” now where can you see that? Ha ha ha

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Dan Stefan June 3, 2010 at 11:29

Congratulations for the chosen topic and the simple but powerful truths you stated in the article.
I am glad to discover organizations that have active policies against bribery of any sort (and they really act on them) – unfortunately this doesn’t happen very often in this corner of the world, and this is even less the case for companies with Romanian capital.
Being one of the “not so many” that has chosen to ban corruption from my organization’s business practices, I am constantly looking to meet my peers – when this happens it generates longer, healthier and more profitable business relationships.
Paying a “commission” (fancy name for “spaga”) to get business is like in a prisoner’s dilemma – I am afraid my competitor will do it therefore I’m doing it as well to stay in the game, and we all lose – the optimum solution for everybody being of course not to do it. This optimum solution can be reached when the parties trust one-another – so how do we build this kind of trust ?
Perhaps it would be a good idea to create and promote a label/association/club for companies in Romania that are 100% against any form of bribery – this could be managed by a serious ONG concerned with business practices, and I’m sure it could find supporters among large and small companies. It wouldn’t be very easy, especially from a legal point of view (the companies’ public image being at stake), but great initiatives turned into successes never are.

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SvG June 3, 2010 at 16:00

Great idea Dan, I’ll think this over. Maybe there is a way we can turn this into a movement. We cannot just sit still and complain.

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Florin June 3, 2010 at 16:51

I am one of those Romanians that has a huge difficulty in paying a bribe. I consider this to be insulting both for me and for my partner.

It’s not easy to live like that in Romania and if we want to change something we need to dig to the root of the problem, where is corruption taught, why there is a belief that corruption does not equal theft. To give you a short example I was instructed by my parents to always give presents to teachers/doctors, usually flowers, then chocolate and candies, later cigarettes and alcohol and from then there’s one step to money. Correct me if I’m wrong but such gifts are not frequent in other countries. That’s the beginning of things and all the children learn this from young age.

My dream is that Romania has a future where corruption will be eradicated and we will serve as an example to the world and will export the know-how in tackling corruption. Because we need to fight corruption every day we can devise the best tools in doing so and if we succeed this on our own, we can then do it throughout the world. Such a dream! Maybe an utopia or maybe our country’s future…

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SvG June 3, 2010 at 17:41

I am glad to see that you understand and accept where it comes from and at the same time don’t accept it. In too many cases I hear only the first part followed by some sort of acceptance that it will always be like that. We can change whatever we want if we choose to do so.

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Manuela Voicila June 3, 2010 at 17:17

if there will be a formal or in formal movement, count me in! I strongly believe that all of us can change things and I agree with your stated principle that each of us can make a difference by not continuing the bribe circle.
Each of us can make a difference, but together we can become a force to push for new rules

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Béranger June 3, 2010 at 17:20

Paying bribes is not necessary… EXCEPT for when you’re in a hospital. Should you want to have the slightest chance of survival, you have to pay big deal!

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SvG June 3, 2010 at 17:36

Fortunately I have never been in that situation (knock on wood). Unfortunately you are probably right.

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Florin June 4, 2010 at 07:54

That’s not entirely true Beranger and Steven. Due to the pitiful salaries being paid, you will notice that a lot of the doctors still in Romania don’t do it for the money but out of passion for the work, just like in any other business. The ones that work for the money are already in Western Europe.

Yes, being asked for money by a doctor, or being denied healthcare services before paying is a reason to pay bribes but it’s insulting for the profession to state you need to pay to survive in Romania. It’s insulting for those that want to change the system from inside and refuse payments under any circumstances. You can do what Stefan did or you should confront doctors “I want proper treatment for my disease, please tell me if I need to pay anything extra”.

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Monica June 11, 2010 at 15:04

I agree with Florin. On the one hand, there are many doctors and nurses who do not ask for bribes and even reject them.
On the other hand (or, rather, on the same hand), considering the horrible way the state repays these people who study for over 10 years and have such high responsibilities, I don’t think they should suffer the weight of public condemnation if a patient chooses (with no constraint) to express his/her gratitude in the form of money.
Sure, the best thing of all would be for salaries to be appropriate to the effort and responsibility of a job.

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zalex June 30, 2010 at 23:48

@ Monica: “there are MANY doctors and nurses who do not ask for bribes and even REJECT them”. the statements in capitals i disagree… there are NOT many doctors who won’t take bribe; ALMOST EVERY DOCTOR will take your money when given. sorry, but i have not hear in a while (yes, years!!!) about medical personnel REJECTING bribes.

“I don’t think they should suffer the weight of public condemnation if a patient chooses (with no constraint) to express his/her GRATITUDE in the form of MONEY”. sorry monica, there is NOBODY that will show gratitude with MONEY! a kind word and maybe, i said MAYBE, a nice bouquet should be more appropriate.

so, tell me then, why i fear for my life when i’m about to enter in a hospital ? it’s because I KNOW that if i don’t bribe every medical staffing i ecounter there is fat chances not to receive the proper medical attention i HAVE ALREADY PAID for through my state taxes.

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Vlad Isac June 3, 2010 at 17:35

Congratulations Steven. Your post is a powerful and inspiring approach of a complex topic.

Thank you for writing this article. I think it is part of the solution not to give in to bribing no matter the side of transaction (active and passive) and it is equally part of the solution to talk about and showcase the long-term benefits of not doing it. Examples like yours, coming from successful men and women in diverse walks of life, may it be business, politics, sports or administration, show that it is genuinely possible to be successful, to make profits, to achieve without breaking ones principles. It could be debated that exactly because of the constant application of such principles, of not cheating, of not cutting corners, they became successful in the first place. It may be so but your example once more reinforces the point of continuous practice. I truly believe that Romania (also the rest of the world) needs more and more such examples to be shown and talked about and sooner or later it will permeate the culture and it will become the normality.

The country where I’ve been living for the past 3 years is considered to be one with a very low level of corruption and I realize that part of the reason why it is so is not that it is not possible to corrupt or that it wouldn’t make things easier or faster but rather because it is seen as abnormal and uncool. When I tell my friends here funny stories about cheating at tests in high school they don’t find them funny or wow and they reply with a dry “man, cheating or bribing is not ok” and then I realize that I might still have some “decontamination” to do.

I guess there is still a long way to go for Romania but I believe this future is possible and foreseeable and you are making a valuable contribution.

Kind regards.

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SvG June 3, 2010 at 23:22

You are so right, in other countries cheating is uncool, something losers do. In Romania someone who cheats is a “schmecher” and someone who is correct a “fraier”, a person to be taken advantage of.
Thanks for your contribution. We need people like you who believe in a future without corruption.

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Stefan June 3, 2010 at 22:07

I encountered the same problem in Bucharest when my wife gave birth last year. My wife (Romanian) was under the impression (or forced impression) to pay the actual assisting docter a token of gratitude (“spaga” or “bribe”) for allowing her to give birth to our daugther. There was no option talking her out of it, as this is what was considered by her something that “had to be done”. We even had a fight about this, but she insisted that a “bribe” has to be paid in a public hospital (GRRRR!)

I sneeked out of the hospital room (a public hospital that is) and went straight to the director’s office. I entered the room and asked her, with a bit of sarcasm, “Hello my name is Stefan, I am from Holland, my wife’s giving birth in this hospital, and it came to my attention that we have to pay the acting docter an additional amount of money, is that true?” . Of course the director said “NO!, ofcourse not! Are you crazy” (I noticed the frightened look in her eyes). Anyhow my wife gave birth, and after one day the docter came to see her and my wife offered her the money in an envelope.. Suprisingly the docter REFUSED the money. A day later the docter came again and my wife still thought she should pay her the money, and also the second time the docter refused. My wife was baffled, but never knew that I had a small conversation with the director in the first place who probably talked to the acting docter in charge.

It is sad to see that in many situation in Romania docters do not help, unless you pay them, and people do die because of that. Changing this “spaga” system (which according to a survey is around 365 million USD per year) will take a decade or 2 … But as Mr van Groningen said, you can avoid paying the bribes …

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SvG June 3, 2010 at 23:03

I heard many storied about doctors, good ones and bad ones. It is difficult when you know that they are on a very low income. Still, good to know that it was possible to deliver a baby without handing over an envelope. Thanks for sharing the story.

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zalex July 1, 2010 at 00:00

@stefan: do you think that if you were a ROMANIAN peasant, from a far-far-far-away village and had a conversation like that with the hospital director it will have had the same effect on people? (director, doctors, nurses). i don’t think so… probably would have yelled at you and “take care of you and your wife”.

@svg: of course it is possible to deliver a baby without the “envelope routine”. but will you risks your wife / child life to verify this ?

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SvG July 1, 2010 at 01:10

Zalex, fortunately I have never had to test this. Call it luck, call it luxury. If I would ever be in the situation that personal wellbeing would depend on it, I would not hesitate and use the envelope. As also mentioned above, I understand that things are easier for a big international organization than for an individual or small company.

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Cristina Marin June 5, 2010 at 18:35

Excellent Article! Corruption in Romania can not be liquidated because of the mentality. Is typical of underdeveloped countries and developing ones. Corruption is the “Terminator’s” company, digging to the root competition and public interest. But it is deplorable that in developing countries suffer the most, those who, because almost empty wallet, I can not return decisions on their behalf.
Contrary to some opinions, corruption affects policymakers more lower class people. Big companies hire experts to handle the bureaucratic system and obscure ways of payment. Also have the means to “smear” if the administrative machinery “scart”.

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SvG June 5, 2010 at 23:40

Thank you your comment. Indeed big companies have other means than small ones. Still, the idea is not to use them. What you are referring to are so called “vulnerable mandates” in which money is paid to “consultants” or lawyers in order to “solve” certain problems. The ideas is not to use this method. It is sufficient to know or understand that a bribe will be paid on your behalf and the fact that is done by a third party doesn’t make it less wrong. We, like most big international companies, have this covered as well in our policies. It is not allowed.

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bizzar June 6, 2010 at 21:24

Coming back to this – Dilema Veche had chosen something similar as this week’s topic: http://www.dilemaveche.ro/sectiune/tema-saptamanii – nice ideas about where Romania stands today and why.

The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem, the second one is understanding the problem. The final stage is doing something about it (the hardest of them all).

As a last comment on this: corruption is an evil we can do without.
Living without corruption it’s a process, there are no “quick wins” around it – it takes time, patience and determination. And we need a lot more people like Dan Stefan :)

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Catalin Nastasescu June 11, 2010 at 13:15

Every time corruption is reffered I remember a quote (not able to list the source):
‘Corruption is not a consequence of poverty but poverty is always a consequence of corruption’.
It is worth trying not to participate into this plague. For the sake of our kids and our own self-esteem, not to mention our chance to come out of ‘a national poverty status’.

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Catalin Nastasescu June 13, 2010 at 16:55

Just found this link http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_eigen_how_to_expose_the_corrupt.html
indicating that corruption is a global practice with no borders sometimes involving even large corporates, while one of the decisive measures to fight it would be to criminalize bribery by law. Apparently this is law already but one would be surprised to learn how many legal heavens are there (and not only Afrikan) just because politicians are reluctant to promote it as rule of law.

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zalex July 1, 2010 at 00:21

i liked a lot your article. i have also commented when needed, above. now, to make some clarifications: i have NEVER given or taken money as bribe from anybody and still managed, somehow, to solve “the problems”. even so, i know that THERE ARE MOMENTS when one cannot make a move forward without make a “gratitude gesture in money”, as a reader before me cynically defined bribery. the corruption we are all aware of is THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG! underneath the iceberg are a lot more profound issues of romanian society that we have failed to deal with in the last 20 years of democracy: lack of education, no compassion, no solidarity, no common good, no “rule of law” syndrome and the list can go on and on…

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Alex July 6, 2010 at 08:27

Very nice blog, good to see there are many comments.
On corruption: while I agree that one can operate in Romania without bribes, I have two other concerns related to corruption.
First, it becomes morally and socially acceptable to be corrupt. Typical social forces such as public opinion, civil society and press are largely ineffective in rejecting or at least fencing out corrupted persons and institutions from the broader social fabric.
Second, there is a sickening suspicion of corruption in any positive act in Romania, discouraging the honest to embark into publicly visible initiatives and encouraging the dishonest to drag noble attempts into the mud…
Hopefully time and discreet individual initiatives like this blog will help!

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SvG July 6, 2010 at 10:46

Thanks, Alex, for you comment. Indeed the problem is deeply rooted and gotten to the point that – whatever the positive achievement – there is a suspicion of corruption. This is not a big incentive to be honest and even discouraging. Reading the newspaper today about the school exams is illustrative. Indignant students because they obtained bad grades even though they paid a bribe, the teacher should have asked more! I suppose there are many students that passed their exams because they studied for them, but the value of a diploma doesn’t go up this way. Important is to realize the a big difference between being honest and being dishonest but making sure you’re not found out. Many don’t seem to make the difference, in both active and passive sense. In reality it is the only thing that matters. I feel more sorry for the ones that do a good job but are treated with suspicion than the losers that are dishonest but get away with it,
The “sicking suspicion of corruption” is probably also a sign of lack of willpower. What is easier than to fool oneself, “everyone is doing it” is always used to justify behavior that cannot otherwise be justified.

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VOA August 30, 2010 at 20:11

Romania is not yet even reached the threshold where we can truly say that we started an anti-corruption policy … corruption exists in hospitals, there is corruption in banks, financial corruption exist in governments, says that if you really try to take the problem “Own hands” I hit a lot of bureaucracy, your doors are closed, and advancement to higher positions than the one you own right now in any institution is based on “knowledge.” Although nearly 21 years have passed since the communist regime was destroyed yet not lived democracy in the true sense of word, we not see the true problems that put the country in crisis, financial institutions, companies .. maybe a real cause is our busy agendas because of indifference, problems that will lead to a similar situation to that of Greece. A good employer knows to eradicate problem like corruption by communicating with people encounter corruption directly, they see …. we can philosophize this problem in another frame.

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VOA August 30, 2010 at 20:14

sorry for my english because i not very well

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Dan December 15, 2010 at 12:47

I think we are missing a very important fact here : who is the company that has the most corruption in it ?
I think the answer is obvious , though it’s not a company … it’s the entire state (all public services , all state payed organisations)
This “company” has not changed much in the last 20 years , it still has the same men in it it had during comunism, so there should be no surprise there.
Think about it , how many times did you have to pay a bribe to a private company ? me .. never. but i did have to pay lots to the state.
I think the problem are not the private companyes (even if they offer the bribe) but the state , if the state would be “clean” there would be a different romania. Now the problem goes deeper , the state is actualy the peouple that work in it’s institutions (many old with the comunism ways still deeply rooted in their brains). What can you do with them … kick them out … that would be inhumaine as we have no social care system that can support them , so in conclusion I think that either until we will have enough money to be able to kick them out , or until they get too old and retire(provided the ones that take their place are honest(doubtful)) , we will still have corruption in Romania

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Reyaz October 25, 2012 at 12:57

Corruption has become a menace not only in Romania but in all around the world. Its the fastest growing disease, which has become the daily exercise in a day to day life. In some countries where they dislike to be called corrupt, changed the term into “negotiation”. This never ending saga of negotiations has become vital in forming the Governments, private and public sectors. Now coming to the point of surviving without offering bribes.
We can stop giving bribes but we can’t take refuge from negotiations.
I would like share with all of you one incident of bizarre negotiations which i had to go through while seeking an admission for my 3+years old nephew in India. I approached one of the good schools, where i took an appointment with the admission authority and desired the admission for my nephew. He categorically denied to have any occupancy and i without insisting quietly started to leave but now he said in a very lucid and polite voice , ” You seems to be a good person, it is still possible to an admission but you have to pay —- amount.” I was surprised and shocked at the same time that a foundation of 3years old child’s carrier is starting by asking for a bribe. Well, i took a deep thought and instantly, i initiated my part of negotiations but all my efforts got futile, i had to leave. Now next week i have an another appoint with other school administration. Wish me a good luck. :)

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Andy Woods November 30, 2012 at 18:42

I love Romania and would like to call it “home” at some point in the future. I could not help but notice the high prices on goods in the shops, especially those that are imported. How can tennis shoes made in China sell for as much or more in Bucarest than on main street USA, given the comparitive differences in labor and cost structure? There has to be a hidden cost. Could that cost be the “C” factor you mentioned? If so, it is a huge burden on those who already have a lower purchasing power.

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Pasagerul January 17, 2013 at 12:00

I have a very huge problem with Romania because of this thing called corruption. If we add the economic crisis everything becomes a fiasco. I had a lot of problems for choosing not to pay bribe in certain places but at the end of the day, I was happy with myself ! I wasn’t anyone’s rag. The problem is that I’m tired to be the only one who takes action when needed. So I’ve decided to leave in a civilized country and contribute with my taxes there. I just want to be respected and my home country doesn’t show me any kind of respect. Sometimes I feel myself very unlucky for being born in Romania. And I think that’s the saddest part !

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