Wednesday, November 23, 2005

To bribe or not to bribe?

A da spaga sau a nu da spaga? This is the question.
"Spaga" is the Romanian word for bribe, an important concept in a country where the size of the black market, if recorded, could have a significant contribution to the gross domestic product. I'm not merely exaggerating; as an example, ANAF (National Agency for Fiscal Administration) estimates that 30% of the cigarettes sold in Romania are sold on the black market. Spaga is the oil that lubricates the mechanisms of the black market in the underbelly of the Romanian economy. Romania has made great strides in minimizing corruption and thus eliminating the need for spaga, but old habits die hard and it will be a long time before you'll find yourself in front of a public functionary without even thinking of giving a bribe.

As a funny side story, one of our American friends was taking a Romanian language class in Los Angeles, and one of the first words the teacher taught them was "spaga". She even taught them the phrase "Cat e spaga?" (How much is the bribe?), as if spaga is a listed price on a bulletin board outside a government institution. Americans need a lesson in Eastern European capitalism! As a Romanian who's lived half of his life in the US, I'm aware of the concept of spaga and how pervasive it is in in Romania, yet I have no idea how and when it's appropriate to give "a little attention" to someone. So I decided to investigate the spaga market and determine the going rate for a few common transactions by asking a few friends and relatives.

Let's say you find yourself pulled over by a traffic cop. Perhaps you feel guilty because you know you broke the law. The cop, friendly has he always is, will tell you how much the fine is and proceed to start writing the ticket in front of you. But before he starts writing, he will gently remind you again that he's going to write you a ticket for this infraction. Bingo! This is the first sign that a little spaga could get you out of this tight situation. Great! Your spaga radar went off, but how much to give? No worries. The Romanians have a going rate for this. Quickly calculate half the amount of the ticket (it's not that hard, the cop already told you how much the ticket is), search your pockets for that amount, and hand it discreetly to the cop. Problem solved! You're off to where you were going.

However, there are plenty of hard working, law abiding citizens who would not pay a bribe even when suggested they do so. My cousin told us about the time he refused to bribe a cop even when the cop repeatedly signaled "I'm going to write the ticket, sir! Should I start writing the ticket, sir?" Sometimes, my cousin said, it's just better to pay the whole ticket and not live with the guilt that you've contributed to Romania's endemic corruption.

I have my own personal story on this topic. One of my goals for this trip is to get my Romanian passport back. I lost it (or perhaps surrendered it, I don't remember) when I got my American citizenship. The process of getting a passport in this country is fraught with complications (a topic for a future posting, perhaps). I'll just say that at the end of an exhausting day of shuffling between government offices, talking to five different people who gave me five different answers, I ran into a nice public functionary who advised and showed me how to write a request for speeding up the paperwork (I'm leaving the country in three weeks!). She was polite and helpful, two qualities which you don't often see in a government worker here. I was so taken by her attitude, that my Romanian side of the brain instantly thought that perhaps she was just signaling for a spaga. After all, the most common situation for a bribe is when you want to circumvent the excruciatingly slow bureaucracy. But the American side of my brain said that perhaps it is possible even in this country for a public functionary to act in the best interest of a regular citizen. For a few seconds, my split personalities fought a moral battle. To bribe or not to bribe? When in Rome, do like the Romans? In the end, the American side won. I simply thanked the government worker and walked away with a clean conscience, although wondering how many more obstacles I will encounter in this ongoing saga.

Perhaps there's hope in this country, in which case the answer to the opening question should be a resounding "NO!" But theory is much easier than practice and often the answer becomes "Perhaps!" I will know the answer when I hold my Romanian passport in my hands.


Post a Comment

<< Home