* Aninoasa is first Romanian town to file for insolvency
* Hundreds of Romanian towns can't support themselves
* EU membership not delivering hoped-for changes
By Luiza Ilie
ANINOASA, Romania, Sept 1 On an abandoned
storefront, an old poster advertises one of the few career
opportunities available in this Romanian town: naked webcam
models wanted for Internet chatrooms.
If joining the European Union was supposed to lift Romania
out of poverty, it has yet to work in Aninoasa, a town of 4,800
people in the mountainous central region of Jiu Valley.
Six years after Romania's accession to the EU, not only is
Aninoasa still poor - it has also become the first town in
Romania to file for insolvency.
Town officials took out a bank loan to fund investment
projects, they could not repay it, they fell behind on paying
other bills and over the years they got themselves so deep in
debt they could not carry on.
"Our mayor likes to joke there are only two major towns in
insolvency in the world, Detroit and us," said deputy mayor
Adrian Albescu, brought in last year after the previous
administration lost the election. "For the past year we have
done nothing else but pay debts."
Aninoasa's experience raises a question: did the European
Union make a mistake when, six years ago, it admitted Romania, a
country with living standards and levels of governance well
below the average for the bloc?
It's not just about Romania. Bulgaria joined at the same
time and is still saddled with corruption and poverty, Croatia
joined in July bringing problems of organised crime and the
legacy of war in the 1990s, and EU candidates such as such as
Albania and Macedonia have even deeper troubles.
In Romania's case the calculation was that pressure from
Brussels, coupled with EU development cash, would help the
country catch up. In many ways it has: Romania's economic output
has almost doubled since 2006.
But in other respects, the lessons learned with Romania, as
well as neighbouring Bulgaria, could make the EU much more
sceptical the next time it contemplates bringing in new members.
When enlargement is next on its agenda, the European
Commission will view the experience with Romanian local
administrations as a "negative example," said Sergiu Miscoiu of
think tank CESPRI.
SPIRAL OF DEBT
One of the biggest difficulties for Romania is that, while
billions of euros worth of EU funds are on offer, it often fails
to qualify for the money because it cannot convince Brussels it
will spend it honestly and efficiently.
In Aninoasa, former mayor Ilie Botgros held the office for
20 years until he was defeated in an election last year.
During that time the town's economy declined, a process
which accelerated in 2006 when the government shut down the coal
mine that was the town's sole employer.
As income from local taxes fell, the town hall's revenue
shrank and officials now have only 4.2 million lei ($1.25
million) per year to cover staff wages, public utility bills and
much-needed projects to improve infrastructure.
Many of the roads in the town are surfaced with gravel, some
neighbourhoods are not connected to the sewage system or gas
supply, and there are hundred-year-old buildings which have no
central heating against freezing winter temperatures and are in
dire need of repair.
The town currently has only two projects with European
funding: one is a sewage scheme, the other a move to renovate
Aninoasa's cultural centre, which should include a gym, a
library and meeting hall.
Botgros went instead to the bank. In 2006 he took out a loan
worth 3 million lei ($893,600) from Romania's top lender BCR,
owned by Austrian Erste Bank. He said he used the
money to pay off previous investments, including work on a
bridge and a gas pipeline in the north of town.
But the debt was stacking up. By now, Aninoasa has debts
worth a total of roughly 6 million lei. The town owes money to
70 service providers. Public lighting was cut off for months
last year because of unpaid bills.
The town could have carried on getting deeper into debt, but
this year Romania tightened up its rules on municipal finances.
It started enforcing a law that requires local governments
to file for insolvency if they are 120 days or more behind with
repayments and their debt exceeds 50 percent of revenue.
Aninoasa filed for insolvency in June. A court-appointed
administrator is working on a plan to tackle debts.
The new mayor has filed a criminal complaint against Botgros
over his management of town finances, and prosecutors have
launched an inquiry, but it is too soon to tell whether any
charges will be made. Botgros denies any wrongdoing.
"Do you really think that after 20 years in office I went
crazy or started stealing money or something," said Botgros, who
is now a local council member and plans to run for mayor in the
next election. "I say I did what was needed for the community."
Aninoasa is probably not the last town that will file for
insolvency. A study from the independent Institute for Public
Policy showed hundreds of towns cannot cover their running
costs, let alone invest in basic infrastructure. Poor tax
collection and one of the EU's highest inflation rates do not
As with Aninoasa, EU money is available in theory, but in
practice a highly segmented local administration is too weak to
be able to use the funds effectively.
Romania ranks 116 out of 144 states in an index of
institutional strength, according to the World Economic Forum's
The EU has set aside 20 billion euros in non-refundable
development money for Romania to build roads, sewage systems and
central heating facilities in its impoverished regions during
2007-2013, aimed primarily at local authorities.
The country has so far secured only a fifth.
Roughly one in two mayors that have tapped funds were
penalised later for various irregularities. The European
Commission briefly blocked funds last year.
"There is reluctance to talk about European funds given that
it is not simple to tap them, it is not simple to implement
projects," said Elena Iorga of the Institute for Public Policy.
A lack of competence is, in some cases, compounded by
cronyism and corruption - adding to the EU's reasons for not
The National Integrity Agency, an anti-corruption watchdog,
has ruled that 193 mayors, deputy mayors and councillors had
conflicts of interest, falsified statements or had wealth they
could not account for since the middle of last year.
A study by the agency of 2,856 local councillors from all
political parties showed almost half of them or their spouses
owned private service providers, several of which had been
awarded public contracts.