The New Bucharest Runs Into Old Trouble

Nicusor Dan, the current mayor of Bucharest, won his post in 2020 as an independent candidate in a landslide election, promising sweeping changes. Declaring that “together we will build the New Bucharest” [1], he ran against establishment figures [2] and all sorts of loons [3] alike, in a bizarre comedy of errors [4] that saw some of the strangest political strategies I have ever seen being deployed in the interest of conquering one of Romania’s few genuine economic powerhouses – and, with it, gain power over its appropriately-massive budget, a budget Dan argued (not without merit, I would add) would be enough to fix the issues that have not been addressed except superficially in the post-1989 era. One year later however, there has been little progress made and life is becoming a little bit more expensive and difficult by the day. Now that the initial enthusiasm faded away and we are preparing for the cold season, it seems that the city is slipping back into many of its old woes – a soaring cost of living, problems with hot water delivery, catastrophic traffic, failing infrastructure, improper sanitation, and a (somewhat exaggerated in the media, but still unprecedented) rat invasion in the northern districts.

Indeed, many have turned against the (neo)liberal Dan, accusing him of lying and incompetence in delivering what he had promised in a timely fashion. As an old Romanian saying, delightful in its fatalistic pessimism, goes: “the change of masters (is) the joy of fools” [5]. But the media and the public’s focus on the person of the mayor, his inner circle of friends and allies, his party support (he seemns to be friendly with the PNL), as well as his personal slips and mistakes is ignoring the very important question of the systems within which he is working, and their built-in biases and limitations.

Radical nation-wide (perhaps even world-wide) economic reform aside, two broad possibilities emerge for the municipality to deal with the kind of systemic issues faced by the city: unleash the market, create markets where previously the commons prevailed: charge money for parking spots, introduce pollution duties for old cars, increase gas prices, increase prices of residential parking areas, etc.. This is a neoliberal way of efficiently allocating scarce resources: the theory is that putting a price on them would ensure that only those in most need of them will actually use them. Only those in most need? More like those who can afford them. There need not be any correlation between need and income – indeed this is in most cases inversely correlated. This, while not explicitly discriminatory (as in principle it is fair – if you don’t want it, you don’t buy it), it is in effect an approach that will only accelerate the rampant extreme inequality observable even now in Bucharest.

The second way is the directly interventionist and authoritarian one. The municipality can implement explicitly exclusionary policies, like establishing travel restrictions for non-residents, disallowing pupils from suburban or peri-urban localities to attend schools in the city, restricting services to certain higher-income areas while neglecting others, evicting undesirable populations, etc.. These are likely to prove unpopular and to result in significant pushback, perhaps even political pushback (although, to be honest, it depends a lot against whom it is discriminatory – a troubling culture of chauvinism against people of certain ethnicities or hailing from certain regions seems to be growing in Bucharest).

Most likely a combination of both approaches will be used (in effect, this is already the case to an extent, although the first approach was preferred by Firea and Dan, so far, while the more extreme approach has been on occasion used against marginal groups such as Roma people and “Bruce Lee”’s homeless drug army in the time of the Oprescu administration). Note that neither really includes as a significant measure real investment into infrastructure that is of actual benefit to individuals and businesses; rather, these are, in effect, attempts to sweep the problems under the rug without regard to causing untold misery to tens of thousands of people and hampering long-term growth and a transition to a more modern infrastructure model.

Similarly, neither approach really addresses the root cause of the issue – indeed they serve to mystify and hide it. The semi-peripheral status of Romania on the world stage results in extreme unequal development of the countryside and small towns as opposed to the major urban centres. Unequal development as a root cause cannot even be addressed because it would highlight the inherently unequal division between i) the countryside (peripheral production processes) and the major cities (core-like production processes) and ii) the core (central UE countries like Germany and France) and the semi-periphery (Bulgaria, Romania, Greece etc.). Explicitly stating these divisions in these terms highlights their source in the recent history of the region, and the approach taken is rather to naturalise these differences by stating that the countryside is poor because of individual failure to embrace modern values and production techniques or even over-reliance on a (mostly non-existent, at least in Romania) welfare state. The lack of a thorough discussion of the topic in the media is all the more disappointing, especially since it seems the average Romanian is well aware of the mechanisms at play, at a certain level at least.

The availability of (as of yet, still affordable and reasonably good-quality, at least in STEM fields) education in the cities means rural-urban migration is happening at a massive scale (I would wager it has long exceeded Ceaușescu’s wildest dreams). After they have been introduced to the corporate world of clean working conditions, air conditioning, relatively high status and high incomes (for Romania, that is), very, very few are prepared to go back to a world of dirt roads, no indoor plumbing and cob-houses that is still very much the case in most rural settlements across the country (although the fantasy of doing so has become popular among the young urban middle class, with varying, often amusing results). They also internalise the competitive and consumerist ethos of corporate life, understanding that participation is the cost of social progress on an individual level. Often this is driven by a desire to fit in and succeed, and by an implicit disavowal of the rural and small-town world operating on radically different, but perhaps more sustainable in the long-term rythms and values.

In fact it is enough to study collocquial language to see how this implicit disavowal is rendered concrete: “ca la țară” (to do something as in the countryside, to do something in a rural manner), “țăran” (literally meaning “peasant”, but with clear pejorative undertones of being an uneducated or uncivilised redneck, hick or yokel) or “cioban” (literally meaning “shepherd”, but actually meaning a person unaccustomed to the conventions of city life or social norms) have become terms of general derision and abuse.

I would argue that the problems Bucharest faces can be seen to be a particular case of “population pressure” – of a disproportionately large number of people all competing for the same scarce resources geographically concentrated around large cities. It is, in effect, the result of people fleeing low-wage and labour-intensive peripheral production processes, located in the countryside, in preference to better-paid, core-like production processes (or the processes supporting them), located in Timișoara, Cluj, Bucharest etc. The catch is that once the new residents settle in, they quickly find that the infrastructure was designed for much fewer cars, people, and overall level of activity than is actually taking place, and cannot catch up with demand, thus driving prices upwards. The extra money earned via participation in the core-like processes is thus spent on covering the increasing cost of living, in a perpetual cycle that leaves many, many residents living paycheck to paycheck, at the mercy of the economy. A similar vicious cycle happens with rents, new housing, infrastructure, utilities, policing, and many other areas.

That is not to say local government is in some way powerless to act, or that Dan is somehow not culpable for his failures. Far from it – they are complicit in not managing the worst effects of these viciuous cycles, and in some cases even worsening them (mostly through facilitating private real estate investments, from which, I might add, allegations of bribery are never far behind), implementing local policies in favour of big foreign investors from which the general public does not really benefit (or, in the case of the absurd road contraption below, situated 5 metres from the junction of the Ion Ionescu de la Brad and Sisești streets, “dedicated” to Kaufland, a huge German retail chain, the citizen is actively endangered):

Kaufland intersection, 5m from another intersection

– [6]

Neither is Dan the “progressive”-liberal he portrays himself as, or the one his Facebook supporters like to imagine he is. Indeed, one of the reasons he broke with the USR party he initially founded as the USB (Save Bucharest Union) was over his failure to oppose the vile CpF (Coalition for the Family) referendum back in 2018 which sought to constitutionally ban gay marriage [7]. Numerous times since, he has proven that he is not at all ready to break the mold of conservative-liberal politics in the vein of Băsescu, which sadly remains the only alternative to the total ideological bankruptcy of the PSD (except for full-on theocratic Fascism, that is).

There was some hope that the newer, “progressive”-liberal USR party, which won several sector mayorships as well as supported the candidacy of Dan, could change things for the better. However these hopes were quickly dashed when Ms. Armand, the mayor of Sector 1, quickly began launching a series of delirious and absurd campaigns against several municipal contractors, including the sanitation company Romprest. Since then she appears to have become stuck in this political-drama mode, while the mayors of the other sectors have not really done much of anything except for failing to step in or even comment or acknowledge on a series of price hikes for foodstuffs and utilities. They should not be taken off the hook – they are entirely culpable for this mess, just as much as the whole system – just not in the way the newspapers depict them. No mayor could solve the problems because they are systemic rather than individualised, localised. It is only possible to manage them, and that can be done better or worse – so far, inaction hidden by bread and circuses has been the chosen path.

There are, of course, some things that could be done to alleviate many of these issues. First of all, the structure of Bucharest’s municipal administration could be reformed even within the system. The current form, with each sector having a mayor and a local assembly, and a separate general mayor, is inefficient and precludes high-level, long-term planning of any kind. In addition, there is significant political disunity between the different mayors:

GeneralNicușor DanIndependent, ex-USRconservative-liberal
Sector 1Clotilde ArmandUSRneoliberal
Sector 2Radu MihaiuUSRneoliberal
Sector 3Robert NegoițăIndependent, ex-PSDliberal populist
Sector 4Daniel BăluțăPSDcentre-left populist
Sector 5Cristian Popescu "Piedone"Independent, ex-PSDpopulist
Sector 6Ciprian CiucuPNLneoliberal

The other major reform that could be implemented to alleviate some of these issues is the nationalisation of public utilities by the municipality. Rather incredibly, while I was writing this article, Dan has indicated his intention to do just that with ELCEN, Bucharest’s main electricity provider. It remains to be seen if the purchase will work in the interest of price stability and service quality, that is to say in the interest of the citizen, or as an excuse to fragment it and sell it off to foreign investors in the future, as has sadly become the standard in the last 30 years. The same could be done with many, if not most public utilities and even some infrastructure projects – they could be managed transparently and efficiently by the municipality for the satisfaction of the city’s residents' needs, not for profit. The current system of bidding, multiple levels of bureaucracy and contractors is beyond wasteful – it only serves as a mechanism of enrichment for politicians' entrepreneurial chums.

It is also increasingly apparent to me that the local authorities are oblivious to the actual number of people living and working in Bucharest. It is apparent that many of us are subject to all manner of living arrangements – multiple independent people living in the same apartment while co-renting, etc.. Many of these people are not officially residents of Bucharest, and thus cannot vote for local elections, officially register with a family physician, etc.. A simple measure that could alleviate this issue would be an easy mechanism to register as a temporary resident, preferrably without requiring a stable address, as many might not have one. The current status quo is that a lot of people are registered as living with their parents in their hometown, while in fact living independently [8]. This is compounded by many landlords not allowing their tenants to register their property as the tenant’s official address in order to dodge the 10% income tax they would normally be obliged to pay (this is also to an extent perceived by the tenant as desirable, because paying the tax automatically means a more expensive rent). A “landlords' union” (I know it sounds sordid, but bear with me) would go to great lengths to educate these people and organise them so a dialogue can be had between the masses of tenants in Bucharest (many of whom, at this point, I repeat, officially do not even live here) and landlords, who in Romania are mostly private individuals rather than massive companies. Understanding these underground dynamics would be a great start for finding a solution to a very real housing problem that, while alleviated by reduced demand due to the pandemic, will soon rear its head again due to the abovementioned mechanisms.

In summary, unequal development is a positive feedback loop. It results from the status of Romania within the capitalist world-economy and there is very little the current configuration of politics or economics can do to alleviate it because it is needed to reproduce said system. In this context, there is even less the local government can do other than go with the flow and let it happen while enriching themselves, or attempt unpopular and explicitly discriminatory measures that will inevitably result in their downfall. A reform of the Bucharest municipal administration is possible and would be beneficial, but there is very little political will for this and the measure is not popular because it would deprive an entire political bureaucracy of their power-broker status. The amplitude and impact of the coming crises could, however, act as a catalyst to shift both the people and the municipality into action – it remains to be seen if this will indeed be the case.


  1. ***, Nicușor Dan și-a lansat noul slogan: Împreună construim noul București (“Nicușor Dan has launched his new slogan: Together we build the new Bucharest”), Digi24 news,
  2. ***, Lupta pentru București: film de campanie în regia candidaților (“The Battle for Bucharest: A campaign film under the direction of the candidates”),,
  3. Mostly the then-incumbent, but unpopular Gabriela Firea, who had considerable institutional backing
  4. Especially anomalous was the bizarre candidacy (or better said, ego-trip) of Ilan Laufer
  5. Schimbarea stăpânilor, bucuria proștilor
  6. Interestingly enough, Kaufland is owned by the same Schwarz Gruppe that also owns Lidl, another retail chain that is known for aggressively building new stores on any plot of land it can get its hands on. They have quite the local lobbying power, it would seem.
  7. As I have written before, this would have been a redundant gesture because in statutory law gay marriage is not currently permitted. Rather, it was a symbolic terror gesture against the LGBTQ community as well as against the perceived left (which are, in most cases, liberals in fact – but it is telling that the CpF views anyone to the left of Genghis Khan as a “neomarxist”, a label under which they hilariously mischaracterised the USR) as well as a means of getting a foothold in politics for the non-traditional radical reactionaries, mostly religious extremists, pro-NATO and pro-USA pressure groups, eurosceptics, nationalists, neo-Fascists and even some washed-up rappers who can’t deal with becoming irrelevant.
  8. Coincidentally, I suspect this is also a major mechanism that contributes to the misleading statistic about Romania having one of the highest home ownership rates in the EU. Many, many people I know are officially still living with their parents and thus counted as homeowners, despite having lived (rented) independently for years, in some cases even decades.