Fury at EU’s Worst Highways Fuels New Kind of Protest in Romania

(Bloomberg) -- Sick of driving on the European Union’s worst roads, one Romanian businessman has found a new way to vent his anger.

Stefan Mandachi, a restaurateur in northeastern town of Suceava, wants people across the Black Sea nation to stop what they’re doing for 15 minutes at 3 p.m. on March 15 as a signal to the government that frustration is widespread.

In an act of defiance this month that made him famous, he spent 4,500 euros ($5,100) to build a symbolic single meter of highway in his home county. The online video has more than 1 million views.

President Klaus Iohannis, who regularly spars with the government, will join Friday’s standstill, though some ruling-party mayors have also pledged to follow suit. A host of local companies plan to participate, as well as Danish home-furnishings firm JYSK and some workers from Ford Motor Co.’s plant in Craiova in the southwest.

Fury at EU’s Worst Highways Fuels New Kind of Protest in Romania

“If you’re a teacher, extend the students’ break by 15 minutes; if you’re a builder, stop working for 15 minutes; if you’re a driver, stop the car for 15 minutes and if you’ve decided to emigrate from Romania, please stick around for 15 more minutes,” Mandachi said in a Facebook post.

Demonstrations have become common in recent years as Romanians challenge government efforts to reduce punishments for corruption. But while officials backtracked when about half a million people turned out in 2017, they’ve since proceeded with their plans more incrementally, causing protest numbers to fizzle out.

In response to the uproar Mandachi caused, the ruling party said construction will begin Friday of the so-called Moldova highway from the east of the country to the Hungarian border in the west. But the section of road it’s referring to isn’t part of the Moldova-highway project, which is still in the planning stage.

‘Legitimate Demand’

“We offered to carry out a feasibility study for the Moldova highway during the current budget period so we can start work in the next budget period, but we’ve received no response,” EU Commissioner for Regional Policy Corina Cretu said Thursday in an interview in Bucharest. “I can only support the pressure the citizens are putting on the government because it’s a more than legitimate demand.”

Romania’s infrastructure has ranked as the EU’s worst since it joined the bloc alongside Bulgaria in 2007, with citizens attributing the lack of progress to corruption, where the country also scores poorly. The country has about 800 kilometers (500 miles) of highways. Only 60km of new construction took place in 2018 after 15km in 2017, according to the national company for road-infrastructure administration.

“It’s not that extreme to have to protest for highways if it’s at the root of people’s biggest problem, but it’s hard to tell whether this will have an impact or not,” said Steven Van Groningen, the head of Raiffeisen Bank Romania SA. “One thing is certain: if we don’t do something, nothing will happen.”

Van Groningen, who attended anti-government demonstrations in 2017, declined to say whether he’d join the 15-minute protest.

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