1. Governance
November 4, 2015updated 19 Jul 2021 11:40am

Nicusor Dan: The mild-mannered maths researcher who wants to save Bucharest from corruption

By Michael Bird

Behind Nicusor Dan, a 45 year-old with a doctorate in mathematics, is a wire shelf piled with hundreds of files.

These are cases Dan and his team from the NGO Save Bucharest! have brought against the mayor, the council, investors and other leading figures in Romania’s capital. Over 300 dossiers challenge unauthorised buildings, dodgy planning permission and the demolition of antique buildings.

Dan has spent a decade as the nemesis of Bucharest city hall, using the law to expose sleazy local politics. For much of this time, the authorities squeezed bribes from the population for permits to build whatever they wanted, ushering in a period of construction anarchy that deformed this urban centre.

As Dan says, it was, “An anarchy which comes from corruption”. In the years 2007 and 2008, Dan says, 50 per cent of planning approvals were illegal. Romania is now carrying out investigations to prove official bribery was endemic.

Interviews from these probes reveal the cost of unrestricted development. If an owner wanted planning permission to build another floor, for example, this required a bribe of €10,000-30,000. To build on green space cost around €10,000; a shopping centre €250,000.

Such claims saw the mayor of Bucharest, a city of 2m people, face arrest. Sorin Oprescu – a medical doctor and recipient of France’s prestigious Légion d’Honneur – was alleged to have taken money from contractors who won public tenders. 

Last September Romania’s fearless Anti-Corruption Department caught Oprescu picking up a €25,000 cash bribe in the middle of the night.

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There is a systemic problem with public contracts. And Dan, a decorated maths genius, has been running the numbers.

About 15 per cent of the €1.9bn budget held by the city and its six boroughs – around €300 million Euro – is lost to corruption, he argues. Mainly this is through backhanders in the public procurement process.

But in local elections in June next year, Dan aims to seize the office he has fought for years. He’s flipped his NGO into a party, The Save Bucharest Union, which will stand in the city’s six boroughs.

“No map of city ownership”

Dan is dressed in a tight blue suit jacket and light blue shirt, his vest peeping out from an open collar. A full layer of stubble reveals he hasn’t shaved for at least a day. Currently, he works as a researcher in a state institute specialising in number theory and algebraic geometry, continuing the work of the doctorate he completed in Paris.

His dishevelled appearance is combined with a scientific mind, constantly juggling the weight of his aims with the practicality of their execution.

Firstly, Dan wants to shine the glare of transparency on the City Hall’s activities.

“There is no land map of city ownership,” he explains, “only a list of owners who pay taxes. There is no map of all the postal codes in Bucharest – only a map of the streets.”

A typical Bucharest street corner. Image: Michael Bird.

This vague representation of the city and its ownership means it is hard to make public policy, to know where to build council houses or nursery schools or find spaces for cars.

Dan then pulls out a giant five-inch thick paper folder, tied up with string and slams it down on the table. Inside are thousands of loose photocopied pages. “I would like to present to you the city budget,” he says.

Inside are numbers, tables, contracts and invoices. “To find information is almost impossible unless you are the economic director of the mayor’s office,” he adds.

Dan wants all public contracts to be made visible online, so that the public can click through all spending by local government.

“Assassinated by traffic”

Bucharest is a dense city of high-rises, and tormented by congestion and pollution. The urban form was designed to support a Communist model of public transportation – but the shift to capitalism has seen private car ownership explode, while local government scrambles for ways to accommodate motorists. Half of Bucharest’s ring-road only has one lane. “The city is assassinated by traffic,” says Dan, who aims to expand this ring-road to ease jams in the centre.

The public transport system is hardly a model of efficiency. There are no maps or timetables on bus stops. The only indication that a bus stop exists is a rusty sign, often battered by the elements or invisible behind wires and tree branches. “We need predictable times for buses and bus lanes.”

After that, Dan intends to tackle the city’s most visible blight – thousands of cars parked on pavements. It is near impossible to push a pram or a wheelchair along Bucharest’s streets without hitting a vehicle, meaning half a walk to the local supermarket can take place in the middle of the road.

But this will not be the priority. “If we try and take all the cars off the street first, there will be a revolt,” says Dan.

Many citizens drive between home, work and the shopping mall without interacting with the city. It functions more like an American suburb than a densely populated European urban centre.

“Bucharest is a town of cars where people do not conceive of walking with pleasure,” Dan says. This has led to a fragmentation of the city.

By way of example, he points to the city’s 200,000 students, who tend to live and work entirely on campus. “Bucharest is a university town where you do not see students. The city doesn’t profit from this.”

And this is Dan’s big idea – reclaiming the capital as a regional hub for learning and enterprise.

At present the city’s central Dambovita river is clogged with advertisements hanging above, and the homeless sleeping below, bridges – an allegory for the city’s disparities in wealth and the authorities’ philosophy that public space means media space.

Dan’s big idea is developing wastelands and underused open space along an “axis of creativity” that straddles the Dambovita. It’ll link libraries, university campuses and lecture halls with businesses, including free offices for start-ups.

Nicusor Dan wants to throw this out to international urban planners. Bucharest is one of the few European capitals which has huge opportunities for architects. Its vacant lots and lack of listed buildings make the space the ideal playground for an inventive design firm.

“We don’t want to be known as the city which kills dogs”

In the past, Bucharest has won an international reputation for its stray dogs. Numbering in the tens of thousands, these packs of mongrels were mainly bred or abandoned in the suburbs, and wandered into the city to sniff out food from trash cans and soft-hearted citizens.

But the outgoing mayor Sorin Oprescu almost solved this problem by rounding them up in heavily-guarded vehicles and transporting the canines to an industrial facility. There, after two weeks, they were massacred.

Stray dogs in a playground in Bucharest. Image: AFP/Getty.

Nicusor Dan is against using a law which allows the murder of stray dogs 14 days after their capture.

“It is a humanitarian question and one of civilisation,” he says. “it’s also a question of the reputation of a city. We are in a global competition of cities – and we don’t want to be known as the city which kills dogs.”

The solution for him is shelters, and a comprehensive program for adoption, which doesn’t exist at present. “No one ever went to the source of the problem of the dogs.” This means a carrot-and-stick offer to residents, especially on the periphery of the city, to fine those who throw dogs on the streets and offer free sterilisation for their animals.

 “More people will die”

A major threat to the city is an earthquake. Thanks to its location on an area of seismic activity, quakes bigger than 7 on the Richter Scale are predicted every 50 years. In 1977, 1,400 people died when buildings collapsed in a massive earthquake. If another of this magnitude were to happen tomorrow, Dan predicts “more people will be dead”.

Many of those buildings constructed in the 1920s and 1930s are sensitive to tremors. These buildings, which Dan says were “on their knees” following the quake in 1977, remain in the same state today. Around 350 of them are classified as high risk, of which only 26 have been renovated safely; over 1,000 more are considered a potential threat. Dan wants to unlock Government funds to restore these buildings and compel owners to comply with restoration. 

But can one man change an endemically corrupt system? When asked whether the city’s apparatus would be too powerful for him to transform, Dan argues: “I blocked investments of tens of millions of Euro in trials. There were very powerful investors who wanted to build on parks and I stopped them.”

Dan already stood for mayor in 2012, winning 8.5 per cent of the vote. Now he’s declaring his candidacy early, appearing on television to try and set the agenda for the election: pro-transparency and anti-corruption.

Two major parties dominate the Romanian political scene: the Social Democrats (PSD), who hold the government (and whose leader, Victor Ponta, resigned this morning following protests over a nightclub fire); and the National Liberals (PNL), whose representative, Klaus Iohannis, is President.

Dan does not rule out an alliance with a political party – but it probably won’t be the PSD, which he calls “profoundly corrupt”. “It would be ideal to win without allies,” he says, “but if to become mayor we need to make an alliance, we would make a rational decision.”

An alliance is possible, he says, if it means a more rapid route to creating more transparency. But would this not wreck his position as an anti-system candidate?

Dan pauses. He bites his lip slightly and, for a moment, it looks as though he is not going to answer the question. But then I realise, this is a man who wants to be careful in what he says, and the manner in which it can be interpreted, but who knows that he is not able to lie.

“I did not become the mayor to put this on my CV,” he says. “I have spent ten years fighting for the city. Not for myself.”

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