What makes these protests different from the ones that have come before in Romania?
The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.
Since the end of January, hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating weekly and then daily across Romania against an emergency decree that would decriminalize some corruption offences and that – critics say – would also benefit Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD).
The December 2016 elections had seen the PSD increase their number of seats in Parliament, and also continued Romania’s tradition of low electoral turnouts (just 39.5% this time).
The adoption of the decree on 31 January – rushed through during an evening session – was among the first decisions of the new government, triggering revolt and leading to mobilization. It is within this context that on 5 February, almost 500,000 people – mostly youth – took to the streets, with some demanding the dissolution of the government, even after the decree was repealed.
In 2017, the slogans against the PSD replaced the ones used against the political class during past mobilizations mostly by progressive activists. “All the parties are the same” was replaced with “PSD, the red plague”. The coming to the streets of the president, Klaus Iohannis, to express his solidarity with the protesters during the first weeks of protests was heavily criticized by some activists and encouraged by others. Coruptia ucide (Corruption kills), a platform created during the protests, published a list of demands, including a ban on reviving the ordinance by any future government, the election of the Ombudsman directly by the citizens, the depoliticization of public functions, and the prohibition of those that have been convicted from holding any public office.
On 5 February, around 2000 protesters, mostly old-age pensioners, gathered in front of the presidential palace in support of the government, demanding the respect of their vote and the demise of President Iohannis. The protesters were largely depicted as “paid by PSD”, representative of an old way of doing politics and political activism and ridiculed for their slogans and insistence that “foreigners” were infiltrating the protests.
Beyond the clear differences between the two camps, the protesters have some things in common: namely the feeling of being unheard by the political class and of not being treated with respect and dignity – even if these feelings are experienced differently.
From the margins to the mainstream
In the early 2000s, nobody would have predicted the mass mobilizations in Romania in 2017. The country known for its weak and fragmented opposition during the communist regime, for not having a strong tradition of resistance and for the violent Revolution of 1989.
Nevertheless, the small scale and marginal groups that were protesting against the Iraq war at the beginning of the 2000s and against the NATO summit of Bucharest in 2008, have been replaced by mass-mobilizations. Contrary to the early 2000s, in 2017, the protest entered into the everyday life of “ordinary people” that had no previous experience of activism.
In 2017, protests are no longer reduced to experienced activists and politicized sub-cultures. Ordinary people are blocking the streets, singing the national anthem in the metro, discussing the criminal law on social media and taking time out to attend protests.
If anti-corruption discourse has a long tradition in post-communist Romania, in 2017, it became clear that anti-corruption activism has moved beyond the institutionalized civil society, NGOs and academics traditionally fighting against it. Today it is ordinary people using creative repertories of actions and slogans, contesting through spectacles, ironies and direct action who are mobilizing against “the thieves” and reclaiming justice and dignity.
We don’t want to be a nation of slaves – Nu vrem sa fim o natie de sclavi was a slogan used during the post-2011 protests. The creativity and the self-expression of the protests of 2017 contrasts with the PSD, a party rooted in the former communist regime, perceived as bureaucratized, hierarchical, centred around barons and the “enriched of the transition” and preaching mainly to the poor and rural electorate.
Between new and old movements
The protests of 2017 did not start from scratch. The memory of the revolution of 1989 and of Piata Universitatii in 1990, the mobilization against the continuation of the communist nomenklatura, the use of the symbols of the revolution (the Romanian flag with a hole), mark a clear continuity with these past events. The tendency to see foreigners as a source of “destabilization” used both by political elites and journalists, is also rooted in the past.
However, the protests of 2017 are also a continuation of post-2011 movements. Previous mobilizations expanded the horizons of the possible and proved that the street can influence political decisions and overthrow governments. Previous mobilizations included the anti-government and anti-privatization protests of 2012, the Rosia Montana protests of 2013, and the anti-corruption protests of 2015, which sprung up after the fire at Colectiv, a club that had been granted permits without legal procedures.
All these previous mobilizations activated a young generation of urban activists interested in politics and the creative use of mass-media. In Romania, the media is often accused of being political (in the sense of being close to political parties), distorting reality and manipulating the older generations. Activists instead get informed from social media and create their own networks.
The mass character has been cited as the main novelty of the protests of 2017. Unlike in the protests of 2012 and 2013, trade unions expressed their solidarity with the protesters. Various universities condemned the emergency decree.
Unlike 2012 and 2013, when the Indignados and the Gezi Park protests drew worldwide coverage, in 2017 these references are less numerous. We cannot speak of a global framing of the fight against corruption in Romania. National authorities are the main target, as opposed to previous protests where foreign corporations and institutions were also in the crosshairs.
In this sense, the main agents of corruption are the enriched of the post-communist transition, the members of the communist nomenklatura and public servants, while international multinationals, NGOs and technocrats are placed at the opposite pole.
The fact that the mass mobilization coalesced around the issue of corruption shouldn’t be seen as a surprise. The contrasting image between voters of PSD, attracted by its social agenda, educated during the communist regime, thinking only of pensions and social security versus the educated pro-west youth, fighting for values and “the moral revolution”, easily discredits the materialistic agenda and socio-economic claim-making which happened during previous Romanian protests.
In Romania, collective memory of past events automatically creates the image that certain categories of people (the miners, the pensioners) are instrumentalized by those in power. More generally, if the movements that emerged during the global crisis of 2008 criticised precarious working conditions, the youth in eastern Europe seem more interested in the legal implementation of the anti-corruption struggle. One survey found that 68% of the protestors described themselves as having right-wing orientations. This and previous data would suggest that the connection between left-wing political attitudes and non-electoral participation, traditionally observed in western Europe, is not evidenced in post-communist democracies.
For the moment, opinions are divided on further paths that should be followed. Some activists highlight that everyday protest will lead to exhaustion and banalization, while others consider it a way of directly pressuring the government. The repertories of actions may change, the reaction of the authorities may lead to a change of strategies and to the fragmentation and dissolution of the existing groups, but it is certain that anti-corruption activism in Romania is here to stay. Similar mobilizations are being organized across the Balkans, but also in France, questioning the unidirectionality of the diffusion processes from western to eastern Europe that has been studied so far.
Nevertheless, the enthusiasm towards the mobilization in Romania should not disregard the need for deeper reflection, not just on the unelected prosecutors and power institutions involved in the war on corruption in Romania, but also on the use of corruption as a political instrument by the opponents of the PSD.
The same enthusiasm shouldn’t allow us to ignore the fact that some far-right messages and anti-democratic ideas concerning the interdiction of the PSD and the restriction of the right to vote for pensioners and peasants, are infiltrating broader and more legitimate fights against corruption and for democracy, even if it’s too early to say in what direction this will actually evolve.