Can Europe Make It?

Romania's 1989 revolution redux

This 21 December, around 4,000 people took to the streets of Bucharest to commemorate the 1989 revolution. Protesters were in the streets out of a sense of responsibility for those who died in 1989 to establish a democratic system in Romania. That mission is not yet accomplished.

Claudia Ciobanu
27 December 2013

Flickr/Cold Shutterhand. Some rights reserved.

“Protests in Piata Universitatii,” my mother wrote to me in a text on the evening of 21 December. “We’re commemorating 24 years since the start of the 1989 revolution. I was 31, like you are now. So much hope we had!”

The 1989 revolution which brought down Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania had begun a week earlier in the western city of Timisoara. That week, 73 people died and almost 300 were wounded in that city. But the country-wide struggle against Ceausescu’s regime erupted on the 21 December, when a speech of Ceausescu in front of the central committee of the Communist Party was interrupted by jeers from the crowd. People stayed on the street and started fighting. More than 1,000 died and over 3,000 were wounded all over Romania. Piata Universitatii in Bucharest became one of the symbols of the revolution.

Reading my mother’s message, the first thought that came to mind was that my generation, unlike hers, never experienced such enormous hope. Neither did we seem to have a revolution of our own to make.

This December 21st, around 4,000 people took to the streets of Bucharest to commemorate the 1989 revolution. The anniversary was used to call for a restart of political, social and economic life in Romania. Protesters said they were in the streets out of a sense of responsibility for those who died or risked their lives in 1989 to establish a democratic system in Romania. That mission is not yet accomplished.

Thousands of people is not much in a country of 21 million. But this is – for the first time in Romania since the early 1990s – a crowd that believes in the power of the citizen. Banners in Bucharest read, “Without us, the people, you cannot do anything” and “The real Romania is in the streets, not speaking on the microphone”. The nametag of the demo is “Neam trezit”, a word play which means both “awakened people” and “we have woken up”.

A ten-point “Declaration of Bucharest” was read out. Among the demands, the resignation of the government and president (representing rivaling political forces), annulment of recently passed legislation that decriminalises abuse in power and criminalises libel, de-secretisation of contracts signed by the Romanian state, banning fracking and cyanide mining, eliminating electoral thresholds.

The December 21st commemoration and the Declaration are not isolated events, but constitute an articulation of a citizen movement that has been growing over the past years, and particularly in the second half of this year.

In September, in response to a draft law that would have given extraordinary powers to a corporation to exploit gold resources at Rosia Montana in Apuseni Mountains, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Romania to resist the government’s decision. The gold project remains halted to date.

For Romanians, the Rosia Montana project came to symbolise everything that went wrong in post-socialist Romania: a political class that, across party lines, pushes the interests of a company instead of serving the Romanian citizens; a media that does not perform its duty to correctly inform; a parliament that manipulates the legal system to secure benefits for those in power; a blatant disrespect for and even emasculation of citizens.

Rejecting gold mining at Rosia Montana became the symbol of fighting against all these fallacies of Romania’s post-1989 democracy.

Romania’s politicians appear not to have understood this. They seem to have also grossly underestimated the degree of scrutiny which they are now under. Since the Rosia Montana protests began, law amendments, governmental announcements and political statements are being closely monitored by newly emerged independent media and activists, their meaning explained to tens of thousands of social media followers. Some of the mainstream media too, more responsive to anger on the streets than the political class, has started performing better.

Despite this, over the past months, the Romanian government on three counts made decisions that caused public anger to shoot up. They ordered police to intervene brutally against villagers protesting against fracking since October at Pungesti in Vaslui county, eastern Romania. They tried to pass a law that would give extraordinary powers to all corporations in the extractive sectors, including Rosia Montana Gold Corporation. Finally, they amended the penal code to protect themselves from being investigated for corruption and abuse of power while at the same time criminalising libel.

The penal code amendments were precisely the catalyst needed to turn Rosia Montana protesters towards objectives linked to the functioning of the political system.

It is unwise to make predictions about the future of this movement. My generation – to which many of the protesters belong – is more prone to cautious hope. We might smile bitterly at the big Hope of 1989.

But this year, it has become clear that this generation has started doing its job in watching out for the country. Unlike a few years ago, we know where to look for correct information; we know that if an abusive law is being proposed, there are good chances we will find out about it; we learnt that taking to the streets can work to stop projects we do not want. In a few years, we might even have hope in whom we vote for. Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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