Five years ago, when I began to study political sciences in Bucharest, I was asked ‘why?’ by a professor. I had pretty much no idea, although I mumbled something about getting to know “the system” better so that I can start to change it. It must have sounded like so much bombast. What system? What change? What for? I was glad nobody asked: back then, I didn’t have any magic answers in my pocket.
But the question has dogged me ever since. Joining a political party wasn’t an option at the time and still isn’t. And ‘the system’ anyway always seems to be somewhere else. I started to volunteer in civil society projects with a focus on education and Roma issues. My interest started to grow in domestic affairs, citizenship, rule of law, democracy as an overall concept and grass roots activities. I did a bit of everything but not enough of any, as my day job was unrelated and time and resources limited.
Meanwhile I discovered my passion for foreign and international affairs so took some classes in my master programme. Working with a Romanian think tank, with Foreign Policy Romania magazine and recently, an internship at the Center for European Policy Analysis followed on as a natural progression. This was when my interest in the EU, more specifically, in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries came to the fore. How have the new EU members been accepted amongst a group of ‘well established’ democracies while having to put themselves back on track at home? What does being ‘European’, with this new set of values, really mean and how is it to be achieved?
Looking back I realize it was all these little steps and projects that have helped me to understand that for none of these countries is democracy immediately, once and for ever, established at the point of EU accession. Romania was no exception. People’s lack of trust in any democratic tools due to a long communist legacy, their apathy and frustration caused by so many of the actions and decisions taken by their elected representatives, must be contrasted with the huge expectations and enthusiasm that followed shortly after the 1989 Revolution or after joining the EU in 2004. I was one of many who didn’t really think that protesting or involving myself in any cause would be of any use when ‘nobody was going to listen anyway’.
A year ago, I had this talk with a good friend, both of us being dissatisfied with the current state of affairs: that democracy is not ‘sexy’ enough for our politicians nowadays, that citizens don’t really know what parties think on important topics, especially on those of concern for the public interest; that there is no accountability for any decision taken in the Parliament, and simply that people’s voices can’t really be heard.
That’s how the Public Romania initiative was born. In a nutshell, it was designed as a platform or a civic forum where, with some ‘common sense’ and clear rules, politicians, experts and regular citizens gather, debate and vote on controversial issues as a democratic exercise in an attempt to make both ‘sides’ see that things are not only black and white, that citizens need to keep an open and critical eye when it comes to politicians’ decisions and that politicians have to explain their decisions better and take responsibility for them.
This is only one attempt among many others by those who are trying to awaken and strengthen Romanian civil society. I would love to see more engaged citizens in their communities, people who do trust that their actions can bring change, people who won’t tolerate corrupt politicians and who understand that change starts firstly with themselves, from their closer circles to their whole communities. Not paying a small bribe for a doctor to take care of you, or a police man for not giving you a traffic fine. It starts there, and these are just small steps, but their effect can cascade. Reacting when unlawful decisions are taken in the Parliament or when the justice system or rule of law is at risk should be more than a moral duty to stand tall and say no to these acts. And the latest protests in Bucharest and the whole country show that people have started to care for more than wages and their social and economical wellbeing (although these are important as well).
Ask me whether I feel European or not and I can only answer: it depends on the people I meet. I feel European when I find open-minded people, willing to give some of their time for causes they think are important for the societies they live in, who get engaged in their communities - people who are being critical, constructive and creative.
But all the rest gives me the opposite feeling. And this, in the end, is ‘the system’ that I’d love to help change from within. A sense of solidarity and cohesion is what brings me closer to a European feeling, without at all annihilating my sense of being Romanian. On the contrary, this is what healthy, strong societies should want and encourage. Democracy is a continuously changing system and, along with citizenship, it is also fragile. It can be ‘updated’ at any time, either through active engagement or, worse case scenario, by not participating at all in the Agora.