Our new issue is out now. Subscribe today!

Voting With Their Feet

Romania has the world’s second-highest emigration rates. Those emigrants are now taking to the streets and fighting to change the conditions that drove them out.

One hundred thousand people took to the streets of Bucharest, Romania on August 10 to protest government corruption. Matei Bărbulescu

On August 10 around one hundred thousand people gathered in front of the government building to protest against Romania’s ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD).  Despite its name, this oligarchic party has nothing to do with social democratic values. The protests centered on new laws that will decriminalize abuse of office and remove checks on connections between the political arena and shadowy private interests.

The citizens in the frontline were not, as some officials claimed, hooligans picking a fight with the forces of order. But the protests did soon turn ugly. After some people began to lob stones, eggs, and bottles at the riot police, the gendarmes panicked and responded with tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannon. Peaceful protesters were hit with clubs, women with their children were tear-gassed and intimidated, random passers-by were brutally beaten, and journalists were shoved because they were filming the abuse. 455 people needed medical attention.

Such repression reflects the weak-rootedness of democratic rights in Romania, not even three decades since the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Until recent years citizens were little used to taking the streets and demanding their rights; demonstrations that were not party-political tended to rally few Romanians. But despite their lack of formal organization, today’s protests also stem from a deeper radicalization, encouraged by the involvement of some of Romania’s near-four million emigrants.

Radicalized

It is unsurprising that corruption is at the heart of the current protests. This plague is rooted in the early 1990s, and Romania’s transition from the old one-party Communist regime to democracy. Many “smart guys” who had held key positions during the Communist era remained in power and took over the private businesses which now absorbed public funds. The disarray in the transition period, plus the lack of democratic institutions and civil society, allowed corruption to flourish.

For some, this became a model of success — a way to get rich quick. Today in Romania, bad roads are built by shady firms, doctors have such low wages that they have to ask for bribes, and rich kids can get into better schools because their parents have the money to bribe the principal, while poor children are left behind in classrooms with no heating and collapsing ceilings. This has led to mass emigration for Romanians looking for a better life.

Almost four million Romanians — close to a quarter of the population — work abroad in all kinds of jobs, from doctors and engineers to cleaners and strawberry pickers. Romania’s 2007 entry into the European Union allowed its citizens far greater opportunities to make their way elsewhere — an opening many of them took. According to a recent UN Report, Romania in fact had the world’s second-highest increase in its diaspora between 2007 and 2015. With an average 7.3 percent annual growth rate in the number of citizens living abroad, Romania came behind only war-torn Syria (with an annual increase of 13.1 percent).

If these millions “voted with their feet,” the level of social mobilization in Romania itself was low in the 1990s and 2000s. This began to change in 2013, as tens of thousands of people marched through the country’s largest cities to oppose a controversial mining project. Gabriel Resources, a company based in Canada, had announced plans to dig the biggest open-pit gold mine in Europe using cyanide extraction. It sought to access the gold deposits, known since Roman times, under Roșia Montană in Transylvania’s picturesque Apuseni mountains. This would have meant blowing up four mountain peaks and destroying three villages.

This sparked the largest mobilizations since the fall of the Ceaușescu regime in 1989. The protesters mobilizing against the project ranged from local villagers to young graduates, anticapitalists, and even Orthodox-Christian nationalists opposed to international corporations “exploiting our resources.” These protests were particularly driven by fears of environmental disaster, triggered by the government’s likely incompetent handling of the project. But the corrupt ties between state officials and private developers again fed the mistrust.

The Romanian Parliament tried to pass a bill that would allow state authorities to grant all the approvals needed to start the project, regardless of any possible legal violations or court rulings, such as expropriating locals who refused to sell their homes and land. The mining project was ultimately halted, and the gold mining corporation said that it would leave the country, mainly thanks to the stubborn resistance of the “Save Roșia Montană” campaign. This was the first time that civil society scored a victory against shadowy private interests.

In the wake of this campaign, the issue of the authorities’ disrespect for the law was again at the center of the next wave of protests. On October 30, 2015, sixty-four people were killed, and hundreds burned and injured, after a fire broke out at a Bucharest nightclub. The next day, the press reported that mayor Cristian Popescu Piedone had granted the club an operating license without the legally required permit from the fire department.

The figure of the protester now became a little more mainstream. In response to the blaze around thirty-five thousand people took the streets of Bucharest under the slogan “corruption kills.” Almost every young person in Bucharest knew someone who had lost a friend in the fire: they could easily empathize with the suffering. Demonstrators demanded early elections and a total overhaul of the political class. Prime Minister Victor Ponta and the mayor of Bucharest both resigned in subsequent days.

Indictment

This cycle of protest accelerated in 2017, in response to OUG13 — a pack of emergency decrees that would have weakened judicial independence and made it harder to prosecute high-level corruption crimes, while decriminalizing abuse of office if the sums involved were less than $48,500. This law was specifically tailored for the president of the ruling party and president of the Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea, who is currently on trial in an abuse of power case. He was already convicted because of an attempt to rig a referendum in 2012.

For many Romanians, this was the last straw. Around five hundred thousand protesters took the streets in all the major cities in Romania and in several European Union capitals: two thousand in Bucharest alone. The most prominent slogans in this #rezist movement were “Thieves! Thieves,” “You won’t get away!” and “Justice, not corruption!”. The slogans also reflected protestors’ association between PSD oligarchs and the old Communist regime, as they termed the ruling party “the red plague.” After weeks of protests and international pressure, including from the European Union and the US Embassy, the OUG 13 order was revoked and the justice minister Florin Iordache, who had pushed the decree, took responsibility and resigned.

A National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) founded in 2002, has been at the forefront of the fight against official misconduct and corruption. According to a European Commission Anti-Corruption Report, this judicial agency “has built a notable track record of non-partisan investigations and prosecutions into allegations of corruption at the highest levels of politics, the judiciary, and other sectors such as tax administration, customs, energy, transport, construction, healthcare, etc.” Its work has led to 1,500 convictions.

The DNA’s role has in recent months been subject to political pressure, in particular since the president of the ruling PSD Liviu Dragnea was indicted on fraud charges. A DNA statement accused him of creating an organized crime group, committing fraud to secure EU funds and misusing his position for personal gain.

But Dragnea fired back. Although his conviction for electoral fraud bars him from becoming prime minister, he controls the government through members of the PSD and its allies, including the minister of justice. He also controls parliament and used this power to force the president to remove the DNA’s chief prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi.

Mobilization

Since the protests opposing OUG13, Bucharest has seen weekly demonstrations against parliament’s war on judicial independence. Dragnea’s moves sparked the #rezist movement to call a fresh mobilization for August 10; a Facebook event invited Romanians who work abroad to occupy Victory Square, site of the government headquarters. #rezist relied on the fact that most of these Romanians have experienced better lives in other countries, where there is less corruption and where they feel that states work better for citizens.

Connected to this is the prominent role that pro-European liberals play in the anticorruption movement, promoting the values of the European Union as an alternative to Romania’s chronic ills. Telling in this regard is the example of the Save Romania Union, a party that portrays itself as a local version of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche (though it is not clear who its own “Macron” is meant to be). On August 15 it managed to collect enough signatures for an initiative to ban convicted people from holding public office.

Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to portray current events as a culture war between the “young and privileged” and PSD-supporting older Romanians. As Roland Clark has aptly written, sociological data has shown that the PSD is itself increasingly a party of “people with tertiary educations . . . frequently state employees or members of the lower middle class” rather than the stereotyped elderly welfare recipient. However, elements of the PSD base are indeed skeptical of the anticorruption drive precisely because of its ties to liberal forces who carried out austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

The protests on August 10 were also marked by a notable change of tone. Fed up with more and more defiant statements from the ruling elite, the protesters adopted a new slogan “Muie PSD,” which roughly translates to “Fuck PSD.” People started to write this everywhere — as graffiti, on car registration plates, or while parachuting or hiking; one guy even tattooed it on his leg. The main slogan was no longer a witty phrase or a pun, like in previous protests, but a straightforward swear word; indeed, the vibe in the square was different, angrier and louder. When people shouted you could feel a more aggressive tone.

The response was the most brutal intervention by the authorities in the last twenty years. This quickly escalated into more violence, as protestors shouted, “We won’t leave, we won’t give up, you won’t get away!” The next day, hundreds of injured men and women filed complaints against abuses by the gendarmerie. Preliminary reports suggest that gendarmes acted on direct orders from their superiors, although nobody took responsibility for what happened, instead shipping blame from one side to another.

Tellingly, at the August 10 protests more than a dozen journalists were beaten, assaulted, or intimidated. Vlad Ursulean, an independent journalist based in Bucharest, said that the gendarmes were not randomly attacking journalists, but trying to destroy video evidence of the police brutality. Indeed, the coordinator of the riot police on August 10, Laurențiu Cazan, himself  declared that “Journalists shouldn’t film the gendarmes handcuffing people.”

Romania’s centrist president Klaus Iohannis was among those who criticized the police’s use of force. In line with the PSD’s efforts to portray itself as the victim of a conspiracy, some of its members said that the protest was organized by the Romanian Secret Service together with Iohannis; one of its MPs, Cătălin Rădulescu, said that “one million PSD members will come to Victory Square and crush the protesters.”

This was ugly language in an atmosphere of increasing repression against both protesters and journalists. Democracy in Romania is twenty-eight years old — a year older than this writer. The battle for its future still hangs in the balance.