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In Romania, a lack of motorways is fueling conspiracy theories

Complaining about hours spent in traffic has become a ritual as much a part of a Romanian Christmas and New Year as the eating of sarmale, the stuffed cabbage rolls consumed in never-ending quantities all over the holiday period.

This year appears to have been worse than ever.

“Five hours to drive 40 kilometres,” says Dragoș Munteanu, referring to a now notorious section of the country’s national route one, which links the capital Bucharest with Brașov in Transylvania.

The bottleneck – the worst in the country – is a stretch of single-lane carriageway through the Carpathian mountains between the small town of Breaza and the resort of Predeal. Passing through several other mountain resorts along the way, traffic grinds to a halt most weekends, causing tailbacks. On January 2, the queue tailed back for the full 40 kilometres from Predeal to Breaza, reducing average speeds to under 10 km/h.

The failure of successive governments (of all political stripes) to build a network of motorways has long been a grievance amongst Romanian drivers, as well as hauliers, who blame a lack of infrastructure for falling profit margins.

With the vast majority of companies across the world now working on the principle of ‘just in time’, parts, produce and goods need to be moved quickly and without delay. Even the most efficient logistics companies can only work with what they have.

“How can we put up prices, which we need to because wages and the price of fuel are increasing, when the time it takes to deliver our clients’ goods gets slower every year?”, asks the boss of one logistics company in the city Ploiești.

Romania currently has just over 850 kilometres of motorways, and according to the World Economic Forum, still has the worst infrastructure of any EU state almost 13 years after joining the bloc.

Romania’s new government, installed in October, has promised more money for infrastructure and is hopeful of opening around 100 kilometres of new motorway in 2020, much of which is made up of short sections of long-delayed projects that should have been finished years ago. However, according to Pro Infrastructure, an NGO, 100 kilometres is a hugely optimistic figure.

What’s more, even if the government does succeed in completing 100 kilometres of new motorways (and then opening them: the two things are not the same in Romania. One small section of completed motorway went unopened for four months last year due to the absence of the correct paperwork) the country will still be without a connection between Bucharest and Transylvania. There are currently no concrete plans to begin work on either of the two long-proposed routes through the mountains.

This has led the more lunatic fringes of the Romanian commentariat to suggest that there is an international conspiracy to keep Transylvania separate from the rest of the country in order to easier facilitate its independence at a later date.

One former Romanian MP, Gelu Vișan, has said that the EU doesn’t want Romania to have motorways “because they are vital to a country’s development, and the EU wants Romania – except Transylvania – to remain underdeveloped.”

As ludicrous as Mr Vișan’s comments are (Romania’s underdevelopment is the fault of Romania, although nationalist fanatics will always find foreign foes to blame for their own failings) there is no doubt that decent infrastructure is key to investment and development.

In the northeastern Romanian region of Moldavia there is currently no motorway infrastructure at all: a fact which is harming investment in the region.

Last year the then Romanian Minister of Labour Lia Olguța Vasilescu admitted as much herself, when she blamed investors for poverty and unemployment in Moldavia.

“Many foreign multinationals have built factories in the west of Romania, close to the motorways of the EU, from where it is easier for them to get their goods to market,” she said, making no mention of the failure of consecutive governments to improve the appalling transport infrastructure – both road and rail – in northeastern Romania.

The complete lack of motorways in Moldavia last year led one businessman in the north-eastern city of Suceava to stage a unique protest aimed at shaming the central government into taking action: he spent around 4,500 euros constructing one symbolic metre of motorway.

The businessman, Ștefan Mandachi, who owns a chain of restaurants, says he was prompted to act after years of frustration with the government’s failure to improve basic infrastructure in the country during the 30 years since the revolution which brought down communism.

Every year, he says, more than 2,000 people die on the country’s dangerous and dilapidated roads: the figure is more than the total number of people who died in the revolution itself.

Work has since begun on the first section of motorway in Moldavia: a 17 kilometre ring-road around the city of Bacău. Part of it may be completed in 2020, but years are likely to pass before a motorway links Moldavia with the west of the country, or Transylvania with Bucharest.

The conspiracy theorists will have much to fuel their fantasies for the foreseeable future.