By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
This week the Romanian government went into direct collision with the public again, only a few weeks after it had to defend himself from accusations it was seeking to control the justice, after a plane crash on Monday which resulted in two deaths ended with a six hours long search for the site, leaving many wondering how this was possible in a country which protects the EU external borders.
On Monday, a plane carrying two pilots, four doctors and a medical student took off from Bucharest heading north-west towards Oradea where they were to receive a series of organs for transplants. A few hours later the plane crashed in the Western Carpathians, apparently due to thick fog and ice accumulated on the wings. The cause of the crash is still subject to thorough investigation, but many point the finger to the dead pilot for flying to low in order to get rid of the ice on the wings.
The state emergency teams needed six hours to locate the crashed plane even if one of the survivors called the unique emergency number 112 and disclosed the GPS coordinates as indicated by his smart phone. Local emergency rescue teams were sent to the area but they received wrong coordinates. The first to reach the crash site were villagers from a village in the mountains who gave the wounded first aid help and then the members of an off-road club who gave authorities the exact coordinates. The pilot and a 23 years old medical student had already succumbed to their wounds and hypothermia when they got to the site. The state emergency teams only reached the place around 10 PM, about seven hours after the crash.
A wave of questions erupted after all this central and local authorities’ stammering. Why, despite all the high-tech endowed institutions in a NATO member state, the state couldn’t locate the crash site in a mountain range not exceeding 1500-1800 meters in height. As the pressure piled up, PM Victor Ponta dismissed a series of low ranking officials from the Ministry of the Interior and the head of the air traffic services administration ROMATSA, while the head of the state emergency inspectorate resigned. The minister of the Interior, Radu Stroe, resigned only on Thursday, three days after the crash, and only after political pressure was exerted on him by his own party for fear of electoral damage. Stroe angered many when he brazenly said the only thing he reproached himself was that the crash occurred during his office.
The debate on the state authorities’ response to the plane crash intertwined on Wednesday with the latest Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), the mechanism through which the European Union monitors progress in the field of justice in Romania and Bulgaria. Romania has made progress, but concerns remain related to attacks against the independence of justice and political opposition to anti-corruption efforts, said the report, which came almost unnoticed by the public. It criticized though a last December initiative by the Romanian lawmakers to shield themselves from corruption charges by amending the Penal Code, a move that drew the ire of the Romanian society and the West. The next report will be issued in about a year.
On Friday, the debate on the plane crash turned political and PM Ponta sought to strike back. The media disclosed Ponta wanted to convoke a meeting of the country’s superior defense council, the highest national security authority in the country, to dismiss the leadership of the Special Telecommunications Service (STS). STS was one of the institutions often named over the debate in search of a culprit for the delay in locating the plane, but the service dismissed any responsibility. But the move behind Ponta’s convocation of the defense council seems to reside elsewhere – STS is under the direct command of President Basescu, Ponta’s political arch-rival, and the PM seeks to replace the current director with someone more obedient to his government.
But also on Friday, the media revealed something Ponta may have to account for. The news website Hotnews wrote that a report of the government after the plane crash on Monday said that the Ministry of Defense established the coordinates of the crash site with a margin of error of about 2 kilometers, but the data was never provided to the rescue teams in the field which were still groping about. Why? The answer is not known yet. But more disturbing is that this information was removed from the final report to avoid embarrassing the government amid the raging public debate.