Can Europe Make It?

No politics, no society: the unbearable lightness in interpreting Romania

Anticorruption and anti-communism are fundamentally red herrings, always at hand to be used and abused, both discursively and legally.

Cristian Cercel
6 January 2020, 10.14am
December 2019, Aachen: Charlemagne Prize Board of Directors spokesman and Lord Mayor of Aachen announce the winner of the Charlemagne Prize 2020: Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, for his services to European values.
Ralf Roeger/PA. All rights reserved.

The victory of Klaus Iohannis in Romania’s recent presidential elections has been largely received with unhidden approval in both foreign and Romanian media. In a piece published in Public Seminar, Maria Bucur, chair of European history at Indiana University, sees in it a sign that populism is “on the retreat” in Romania. For The New York Times, Iohannis’s re-election means that Romanians “rejected years of scandal and chaos”, blaming the latter on the Social-Democratic governments with whom Iohannis institutionally cohabitated over the past three and a half years. The American daily emphasized Iohannis’s philo-Europeanism, as well as his anti-corruption stance, counterposing his seriousness to the tantrums and idiosyncrasies of populists such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Donald Trump in the United States.

In recognition of his philo-Europeanism, Iohannis will be awarded in 2020 the Charlemagne Prize: “The President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, embodies in the East the European canon of values, the consolidation of the European community governed by the rule of law and the common idea of a European future.” (my translation). In a similar vein, representations of a Romanian “civil society” that is constantly (and successfully) pushing for more democracy and the rule of law also circulate in both western and Romanian mass media. According to such representations, Romania has pretty much turned into the positive example in eastern Europe, as opposed to what is happening in countries such as Poland or Hungary.

For whoever has been following Romanian politics throughout the past three decades, it is nonetheless hard to avoid a feeling of déja-vù. Almost all previous local, parliamentary, and presidential elections – and recently also European elections - (e.g. 1996, 2004, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2019) have been framed around oversimplified dichotomies such as the aforementioned ones. The previous hype around the electoral successes of former presidents Emil Constantinescu (1996-2000) and Traian Băsescu (2004-2014) echoes the positive interpretation of Iohannis’s success. The latter is by no means the first post-1989 Romanian president who presents himself as being essentially different from the PSD and who wins elections mainly because he runs on an anti-PSD platform.


Yet Iohannis seems to have taken the platform one step further than his predecessors. His declarations of war against the PSD have come together with breaking some of the unwritten rules of the democratic game that, for better or worse, have informed the elections in post-1989 Romanian liberal democracy. Thus, Iohannis refused to participate in any electoral debate whatsoever, and organized in exchange a simulacrum of “debate” with journalists that his staff has carefully chosen. The cherry on top was that he himself moderated the said pseudo-debate. Add to this that in the five years of his first mandate, he largely refrained from granting interviews to mass-media and on the few occasions he did accept to be questioned, the journalists interviewing him were not necessarily of the critical kind. For example, the Presidency’s spokesperson over the past three years was the journalist who moderated the presidential electoral debate in 2014 (Iohannis did participate in one then) and who then interviewed him two times on public television in 2016 and 2017.

Iohannis refused to participate in any electoral debate whatsoever, and organized in exchange a simulacrum of “debate” with journalists that his staff has carefully chosen.


A range of dichotomic representations that have been in effect constantly regurgitated over the past three decades, yet whose appeal never seems to falter, informs the understanding of Romanian society and politics: anti-corruption and rule of law versus corruption and cronyism; apolitical expertise and technocracy versus political dilettantism; philo-Europeanism versus anti-European populism; West versus East; the forward-looking modernizers versus the backward-looking inheritors of communism; the democrats versus the non-democrats; the freedom-loving versus the captive electorate; those who attract the investors versus those who harry them away; modernization versus stagnation; the active citizens versus those living on welfare; the civilized versus the plebs; civil society versus the state; good (or perhaps the lesser evil) versus evil.

In December, when commemorations and anniversaries of the bloody fall of the Ceaușescu regime in 1989 captured the public attention, such dichotomic representations regularly acquired a mnemonic twist. Cast in the role of the corrupt, the populist, and as embodying the Romanian malaise – curable or irredeemable? this is the question – and incessantly branded as the one reason for everything not functioning properly or perceived as not functioning properly in Romania: PSD, Romania’s Social-Democratic Party. In effect, the motivation of the jury for awarding Iohannis the aforementioned Charlemagne Prize also emphasizes Iohannis’s constant conflict with the PSD, in a rave about his stance and his involvement on behalf of the “modern, European, normal Romania”.

Two centre rights

Moreover, in Romania the banner of Europeanism and “normality” is being held up and frantically waved not only by Iohannis and the Liberal Party supporting him, but also by the relatively new kids on the block, the USR PLUS alliance. The latter came third in the European elections in the summer of 2019 and then joined the liberal Renew Europe group. The alliance consists of two parties whose main political program is centred around the opposition to PSD and to corruption. In addition, USR PLUS like to emphasize that they are new to politics, with origins in the aforementioned “civil society”, being thus putatively untainted. These were the main messages that Dan Barna, the candidate of the alliance, tried to get across to the public in his bid to enter the second round of the presidential elections. The challenge was to get more votes than Viorica Dăncilă, the candidate of the Social-Democrats. Hence, Barna and USR-PLUS tried to mobilize voters by luring them with the representation of a “historical” second election round without the PSD, which would pit the centre-right against the centre-right, a sign of democracy and normality: “We are on the home straight for an essential moment of Romanian democracy. For the first time, two centre-right candidates have a real chance to dispute the second round of the presidential elections. We needed thirty years to get here.” Alas, Barna is not really the historical agent he hoped to be. History still has to wait, as Dăncilă did enter the second round.


No matter what the sins of the PSD amount to, an understanding of democracy as that system reaching its moment of maturity when electoral competition pits the right against the right is by no means a message of hope. Yet this is also the position embraced by Iohannis. During the electoral campaign for example, the latter made a statement that would probably be received with apprehension and concern elsewhere: “I am not in an electoral competition with the PSD (the Social-Democratic Party, author’s note), I am in war with the PSD, and this not because we are bad, but because they have been bad with the Romanians.” The statement, bellicose yet stylistically rather childish, was not a mere slip of the tongue: Iohannis had already spoken in similar terms immediately after the announcement of the first round results: “The war with the PSD is not yet over. We still have another fight, a step in two weeks.”

The PSD is definitely not the party whose politics and worldview one has too many reasons – if any – to defend, yet the customary PSD-bashing and the accompanying appreciation of the right-wing “Europeanists” are indicative of a narrow political horizon tilted so much to the right that it hinders any potential attempt to move beyond this narrowness by default.

The typical understanding of Romanian politics is at best then a case of wishful thinking, but more certainly an example of post-ideological blindness. It styles itself as neutral and has its origin in the self-satisfied shallowness that tends to inform every engagement with what is happening in Romania (as well as in Eastern Europe in general). The interpretative framework pre-given, all one needs is to hastily apply it, in the umpteenth reiteration of what we have already heard and read so many times before and will probably continue to hear and read for a while.

“I am not in an electoral competition with the PSD (the Social-Democratic Party, author’s note), I am in war with the PSD, and this not because we are bad, but because they have been bad with the Romanians.”

Pro-Europeanism – what is it?

A liberal-conservative president who wins a second mandate after literally declaring war on his social-democratic opponent and the party she represents, whom he had happily ousted from the prime ministerial seat and respectively from government with just some weeks in advance; a president who refuses debating with his political opponents or being interviewed by critical journalists; a nominally social-democratic party in disarray, which has significantly contributed to the delegitimization of anything associated with the political “left” in Romania; a relatively new political force, pro-European, whose members are considered to be “successful professionals who have lived abroad and returned to Romania with the desire to reform its political system“, and whose president thinks that democracy happens when the right fights against the right: there is nothing to applaud here, unless one is of the opinion that the right side of the political spectrum is the only legitimate one.

Looking for pro-European figures, without any effort whatsoever to discern what lies behind the professed pro-Europeanism and beyond the rhetoric of democracy, normality, and Europeanization, is fundamentally a sign of intellectual laziness. It is as if the lurch to the right is worrisome only if it comes together with a criticism of the European Union. Yet Romania provides a perfect example of how the right-wing shift plus EU-friendly stances and positions can be part and parcel of the same political package.

Against this background, it is worth looking more closely at the two main tropes which have been informing Romanian politics and particularly anti-PSD positioning over the past three decades: anticorruption and anticommunism. Paradoxically, the two tropes have also been embraced to a large extent by the PSD itself, yet the party largely lacks the credibility to put them to good use for its own gains.

Anticorruption, an addictive panacea

The interpretative dichotomies used to describe developments in Romanian politics have not changed significantly over time, even if some of the important political actors did move between camps, as for example Klaus Iohannis himself. After being comfortably elected three times as mayor of Sibiu (in 2000, 2004, 2008, then also in 2012), Iohannis’s first attempt to take centre stage in national politics took place in 2009. Then, he duly accepted to be the prime-ministerial choice of a political alliance consisting of the Social-Democrats he now officially despises and fights against and the Liberals, in apparent opposition to the then austerity-driven politics supported by the conservatives in power. The bid was not successful and the particular episode has come to be relegated to the category ‘errors of the past’, a category that one should not dwell upon too much in order not to spoil the celebratory mood. In the meantime, the conservatives and the liberals merged under Iohannis’s leadership and Romania’s National Liberal Party became a member of the European People’s Party.

A great number of other important political figures, many of them from the much maligned PSD, have ended up in jail, as a result of Romania’s anti-corruption drive of the past two decades, a drive much hailed both at home and abroad. It would appear in effect that the democratisation of Romania is directly dependent on the number of indictments for corruption and on the number of politicians condemned and imprisoned. The more of the latter, the more democratic the country is considered to be. At the same time, the more of the latter, the more the representation of corruption as being almost endemic is reinforced. Romanian democracy needs the fight against corruption, the fight against corruption needs corruption. Ergo, Romanian democracy needs corruption.

Bucharest, Romania: a no-confidence motion topples the social-democrat government led by Sorin Grindeanu, June 21, 2017.
Bucharest, Romania: a no-confidence motion topples the social-democrat government led by Sorin Grindeanu, June 21, 2017.
Gabriel Petrescu/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In an official report about the activity of the National Anticorruption Directorate, Laura Codruța Kövesi, who was the office’s chief-prosecutor between 2013 and 2018 until the PSD succeeded in ousting her in what was probably a rather futile effort aimed mainly at self-preservation, argued that the constant growth of official indictments (in 2016, 72% more than in 2012) is an indicator of performance. Previous yearly reports also emphasized the breaking of statistical records in indictments and prosecutions. When speaking about particular criminal offences and about a concerted heavy-handed prosecutorial campaign against those particular criminal offences, one might be tempted to think that roughly 14 years after the campaign started, the measure of success would consist in a quantifiable decrease in the said criminal conduct or that at least such a decrease should be an objective of the said campaign. This is far from being the case with Romania’s anti-corruption, that has been constantly feeding on itself.

The legitimacy of anticorruption is being discursively constructed on the one hand by idle verbiage about the ‘rule of law’ – that also ends up questioning the role of the Parliament as a law-making body – and on the other hand by flirting with what would be called anywhere else ‘right-wing populism’. In the summer of 2019, Iohannis called an ‘anti-corruption referendum’, in order to emphasize his opposition to the attempts by PSD – then in government and enjoying a parliamentary majority – to enact controversial legislation changes related to graft and corruption offences. One of the two referendum questions was “Do you agree with the prohibition on amnesties and pardons for corruption offences?”. Iohannis campaigned for the modification of the Romanian Constitution along the lines of a constitutional interdiction of any possibility whatsoever to grant amnesty or pardon to someone who has been condemned for corruption. The idea that of all possible offences corruption is the one fundamentally unpardonable and that a clause to that effect should be inserted in the Constitution (in its current form, no constitutional provision restricts the possibility to grant amnesty or pardon for any particular offences whatsoever) – smacks of abuse and penal populism. It is, incidentally, also the kind of provision that can easily be put to work in order to get rid of any potential political opponents with the help of the judiciary. One would rather expect it from the likes of Bolsonaro, Duterte, or Salvini. Nonetheless, about 80% of the Romanian citizens who went to vote in the referendum voted “yes”. Criticism with respect to the referendum was conspicuously absent.

The couple corruption (Evil) and anticorruption (Good) has hijacked the political debate as such. Corruption and anticorruption find themselves in a relationship of co-dependency. The image of Romania as the corrupt country par excellence has accompanied the post-1989 ‘transition’ to democracy, corruption being often singled out as the main reason for the problems associated with this transition and also as the one aspect that could make the putative gains of this transition reversible.

Accounts about Romania have always been keen to emphasize that corruption is rampant. Yet starting with the mid-2000s, Romania has also slowly become the country of anticorruption. As one of the co-founders of “Transparency International” recently wrote: “While quite a few countries in Central and Eastern Europe give some reason for worry, Romania is potentially turning into a good news story. The country is moving, albeit gradually, away from its long legacy of corrupt government towards being a more transparent democracy where the rule of law is applied more honestly.” Or, as a piece published in Politico in 2016 put it: “Few countries can claim a sitting prime minister as one of the 1,250 public officials indicted for corruption in a single year. Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), the agency responsible for the crackdown, has made a deep impact in a country rife with public malfeasance and mismanagement. Its actions have been hailed by citizens, investors and Romania’s EU and US allies, who welcome evidence that the country is getting to grips with its problems.”

Being a fight of Good against Evil that is hailed by “citizens”, “investors” and “allies” alike, anticorruption needs heroes and crusaders. In the second half of the 2000s, one such hero was then Minister of Justice Monica Macovei, a “crusading justice minister”, “fighting the crooked politicians, policemen and judges who continue to exert a powerful grip over post-communist Romania”. So was Daniel Morar, the head of the Anti-Prosecution Agency between 2005 and 2013, called “Mr. Too Clean” and “an anti-corruption crusader” by The Economist and a “prosecutor fighting against the system” in a book published in Romania. More recently, Laura Codruța Kövesi has taken on the role of the “crusader against corruption” who “stirs Romania” and is the preferred heroine of Romanians and foreign observers easily excitable about Romanian anticorruption. It is both fascinating and odd to see how the representation of corruption and anticorruption in Romania has essentially not changed very much over the past one to two decades.

This constantly regurgitated metaphor of the crusade against corruption captures very well the anti-political character of the Romanian anti-corruption drive. The belief in it has a peculiar mystique and almost religious overtones. In Kövesi‘s terms: “If you do what is good, moral, legal, if you have a fair and noble purpose, no defeat is definitive”.

Corruption then turns into the single explanatory framework for why things go wrong in Romania, why Romanians are poor, why Romanians leave the country in hordes, why corruption is the main problem of the educational system in Romania, why the public health system is collapsing, or why foreign investors putatively do not invest in Romania. Corruption led to the tragic fire in a nightclub that killed 64 and injured 146 in October 2015. And if corruption is to blame for everything, then anticorruption is the panacea, in a never-ending vicious circle. Who needs politics and political debates when you can have anticorruption?

Kövesi has recently been appointed first chief prosecutor of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. It remains to be seen whether the success of this fight will also be measured against the number of European politicians and public officials indicted and ending up in prison, or whether this is an indicator of performance only applicable to Romania.

Corruption then turns into the single explanatory framework for why things go wrong in Romania

Anticommunism without Communists

Alongside anticorruption, anticommunism is the other key legitimizing discourse generally employed by Iohannis and by most of those in the anti-PSD camp. Preposterously and ominously, PSD is referred to as the “red plague” that has to be fought, defeated, expunged. Chants of “down with the Communists!” are often heard at protests against the PSD.

PSD might be the party with the most personnel and institutional continuities with Romania’s pre-1990 Communist Party. Nonetheless, this is a legacy that it largely tries to get rid of rather than a heritage worn as a badge of honour. Prominent members of the party, such as former Minister of Foreign Affairs Titus Corlățean, have themselves no reserves in accusing some political opponents of “Neo-Marxism”. In various contexts, the party has toyed with criticism of multinational companies, foreign banks and of the European Union, but whenever such criticism happens it looks more like a ridiculous attempt to flex non-existing muscles. After all, PSD is a social-democratic party in name that does not support progressive taxation in one of the countries with the highest income inequality in the European Union. No plans to establish common ownership of the means of production, no attempts to address the rampant social inequalities in Romania, no purporting to speak on behalf of the working class, no ideas of social revolution, no utopia, no effort to tax big capital, no Gulag: where is the communism?

The accusations of ‘communism’ so often directed against the PSD are both an example of political and intellectual cluelessness and a way of radically delegitimizing an opponent in the contest for power.

If one looks more closely at the content that fills in the Romanian “anti-Communist” discursive vessel, a vessel already visibly overflowing, one finds plenty of reasons for a more critical stance towards the never-ending post-Communist anticommunism in Romania. Contemporary Romanian anticommunism is distinctly entangled with ideas and representations that do not stand alongside a tireless quest for democracy, but are rather a repudiation of democratic ideals.

PSD does not in any way represent radical egalitarian left-wing politics, yet paradoxically the “anti-Communism” that comes together with anti-PSDism is informed by a rejection of the idea of social equality as a legitimate political desideratum and an attack on the welfare state; by the refusal of redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom; by an understanding of freedom – especially on the economic level – that is incompatible with that of public good; by the conviction that the private sector has to replace the state in all matters, including education or health; by contempt for the poor; and by nostalgia for an idealized pre-Communist past. The ideological horizon that (past and present) Romanian anti-Communism stands for is closer to that of Orbán and Fidesz in Hungary, or Kaczyński and PiS in Poland than those excited by the pro-EU positions of the Romanian right allow themselves to admit. After all, one should not forget that Orbán and Fidesz in Hungary and Kaczyński and PiS in Poland are also the outcome of Eastern European anti-Communism, as annointed by and in the west.

Paired with anticorruption, anti-Communism underlies a concerted attack against the state and its functions, and pushes for dismantling whatever has still remained from the state. What ‘getting rid of communism’ means for the post-Communist anti-Communist warriors is deregulation, getting rid of a state educational system, getting rid of healthcare, privatizing the pensions system, reducing the role of the state to that of a mere facilitator for business and entrepreneurship and assuring law, order, and security. Education and healthcare are chronically under-financed, well below EU averages, illustrating the logics of anticorruption (the state is corrupt, so we need less state and less public spending) and anticommunism (too much state means communism, so we need less state and less public spending) combined. Nonetheless, things are different when it comes to nurturing a good relationship with the United States by means of spending public money on acquisitions of arms from American companies, and generally by an attitude of utmost servility and deference with respect to US interests and requests. The image of President Iohannis smiling under a cap entrusted with the message “Make Romania Great Again”, on the occasion of a visit he paid to his American counterpart, Donald Trump, truly says more than a thousand words.

Ideas of social protection, social equality and social welfare are seen as unwanted residues of state socialism, impediments on the way towards making Romania modern and ‘normal’. This has led in practice over recent decades to the adoption of a labour legislation heavily favouring employers and entrepreneurs. For example, for Cristian Păun, economics professor and adviser of current Liberal prime-minister Ludovic Orban, the idea of a Labour Code regulating the relationships between employers and employees is a Socialist one, which limits entrepreneurial activity, destroys the entrepreneurial spirit, and brings us all to poverty. Thus, for Orban, the “entrepreneurs” and the “capitalists” are those at the forefront of society, a position also shared by Klaus Iohannis:

“There is no capitalism without capitalists. […] The Romanian society needs a change of mentality, which will hopefully take place. […] The business success is very important and we should respect the successful businesspeople. Also, I think we need to instil in our children, young people, the courage to walk on unpaved roads, the courage to set up businesses, to succeed in the economic field.”

If anticorruption has replaced politics, anticommunism has replaced any potential project of living in common. The infamous Thatcherite quote, “there is no such thing as society”, is being fully realized in post-communist Romania, all in the name of Europeanism, normality, modernization, and entrepreneurship.


Rather than a quest for a moral compass, anticorruption and anticommunism in Romania are two sides of the same coin, two facets of the one and the same process lurching towards the right that has, nonetheless, a very ‘European’ face.

Anticorruption and anti-communism are fundamentally red herrings, always at hand to be used and abused, both discursively and legally. Problems in Romania are political and due to state involvement. Yet the state, particularly the one Iohannis and the right like to govern, retreats from supporting anything that has to do with the idea of living in common – education, health, culture, environment, social – whilst constantly expanding its repressive and military apparatus and looking for ways to satisfy investors and entrepreneurs.

Anticorruption, anticommunism, and the cult of entrepreneurship: this sounds eerily akin to Chile under Pinochet. That particular experiment, largely supported by western capital did not turn out very well when it came to it. The Romanian one won’t either.

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