Gabriela Preda, journalist and academic (PhD), specialising in foreign affairs and media analysis
There is an ancient proverb that goes: “when the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills”.
In the case of Europe, the wind of change happened to blow these past weeks on its outskirts: Romania saw its biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989. It made headlines for days all over the world, thanks to colorful and creative street protests against corruption and in support of the rule of law.
Here are at least five things one could learn from the protests
1. It’s a matter of perception
We have learned that Europe is not only about Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Prague or Rome. It’s first and foremost about people and about people power. Both in the so called “full” or “flawed” democracies from west to east, from north to south. Outraged, sad and unhappy, Romanians have spent days and nights marching in towns and cities across the country and their #resist movement has been protesting tirelessly for weeks. Old(er)and new generations got together and spoke up. Millions if we are to sum up the overall numbers of the past weeks. Their determination and messages are strong and universal as they focus on issues like dignity, respect, solidarity, hope, democratic values, rule of law, accountability, decency, civic engagement, transparency, conscience. That is on fundamental rights. No wonder that #PeoplePower made in Bucharest has become an inspirational hashtag on social media and thus a brand. Support has grown quite fast as well both in Europe and overseas. Some organised solidarity protests as well or other public events and conferences in different parts of the world; some others spoke up and drew attention on their own problems as well, often similar to those of Romania; some others finally took advantage to learn more about geography and history, feeling they had just discovered a new energetic, creative and surprising corner of the world they were not even aware of. And not only by becoming an inspirational brand a bit everywhere around the world, #PeoplePower made in Bucharest has managed to contrast the deficit in terms of public image both the country and the EU project have been suffering for quite some time. In just a couple of days and without following any elaborated promotional campaigns, expensive communication strategies, PR or lobby decalogues. All free of charge and without denying existing gaps or flows of the system, but simply by telling a story, by focusing on the full half of the bottle, on its strengths.
Several experts in corridor diplomacy envisage (off the record) even a new set of branding opportunities, with changes ahead for public diplomacy and storytelling as well. Especially for Europe, in desperate need of fresh “soft power” capabilities and tools that would eventually re-polish the image of a union in crisis by also focusing on its initial project ‘safeguarding peace and prosperity’ fueling not only crisis or distress but also hope, freedom and democratic values. However, the question is who will eventually push forward the Bucharest #PeoplePower “style” and take the opportunity to (re)frame the (new) story.
2. Civic participation and social engagement can (really) make a difference
These events have clearly shown that people power can (still) play a key role in politics. Ever since the end of January, international media outlets have constantly reported from Bucharest that the government’s supposed u-turn on its first emergency decree would never have happened without such a huge non-violent and determined pressure from the streets. Their message was simple and straightforward: leaders who act in their own self interest, underhand, can expect to be held to account by the people. With a local “added value’ – the creative language of protest: ‘funny, sarcastic, poignant and infinitely inventive’, as observers put it. This way, #PeoplePower made in Bucharest has got the world’s attention and also support from some EU officials, worried by governmental actions in Bucharest. However, the leaders criticised by the crowd got irritated and invoked conspiracy theories, while drawing attention on the country’s president, criticised in turn for being on the protesters’ side from the beginning and accused of “dividing the nation”. Moreover, some other fans of the government came forward as well in support of what they called the ‘honest cabinet’ they had voted for. Interestingly enough, this other crowd was much smaller in numbers than the anti-governmental one, was not questioning any move to decriminalise corruption and, according to repentant politicians and local reports, was actually organised by the leading party, winner of the past parliamentary elections, which saw a very low turnout.
Against this background, judging by the facts, one can’t help but notice that #PeoplePower protests against the government have really had a miraculous effect on ”traditional” voter apathy. For political scientists, it represents a perfect example of direct, participatory democracy, without any right or left ‘label’. However, the question is whether this #PeoplePower could develop new, inventive instruments as well, that would eventually strengthen social engagement and civic participation in the long run. According to political scientists, it would be a major shift not only for this corner of Europe.
3. Unfiltered facts can (really) contrast fake news
In an era in which everybody deplores fake news everywhere, in Bucharest we have seen that journalism’s never-ending fight for simple, unfiltered, sacred facts eventually pays off. Despite the tons of information we get on a daily basis from different sources, people eventually reach the climax, refuse to take things for granted and claim their right to be rightfully informed and to wider angles for understanding history. In other words, when exposed to pure facts, less people confuse with news all they hear from social media/ read in newspapers/ watch on TV. That is because simple, basic questions (like the traditional 5Ws) don’t need complex answers. The question is thus whether we’re dealing with a temporary outcome or if #PeoplePower made in Romania can eventually open up new trends on how traditional or social media reporting should fight back against fake news or propaganda. In any case it would not be the first time this off-the-beaten-path corner of Europe, a country full of surprises, would make history as far as media and reporting are concerned: the bloody Romanian Revolution, the last one of the 1989 popular uprisings against communist rule in eastern Europe, was also the first ever live broadcast revolution in TV history.
One thing is sure – the #PeoplePower protests made in Bucharest have proven that non-filtered depictions of reality can eventually contrast fake news. At the end of the day, one cannot underestimate the power of simple questions and answers. Moreover, questioning follow-ups on key issues can really make a difference while scrambling to constantly check and unveil facts from all angles. Even in the age of social media. In other words, less is more.
4. It’s important we don’t lose sight of the big(ger) picture
Another thing we’ve learned is that this may be the beginning of a wider story. Corruption is not new, it goes back centuries and has been endemic not only in Romania and Europe. Historians might argue that it has always been like that: indeed, in Europe and around all countries/empires have had their weak rulers, corrupted advisers or greedy officials. From the Ottoman Empire to Imperial Russia, from political corruption in the Roman Empire to the colonial roots of corruption within the British Empire, from the excesses of the French royalty to the persistence of corruption within the Habsburg bureaucracy.
A quick round-up on international news brings forward regularly interesting stories as well – from France’s lax ethical standards and nepotism claims to Spain’s royals tried for fraud, from Greek fakelaki still going strong to Italian omertà often over corruption or extortion, from German MPs’ reluctance history with UN’s Convention against Corruption to UK financial centres accused by campaigners of laundering corrupt money from overseas. Against this background, some experts argue that the inspiring protests in Bucharest and their enthusiasm can really be contagious. Other protests against corruption have already been organised in different countries. Some others minimise though the domino effect of the #PeoplePower made in Bucharest, arguing that, in the end, with all its problems, in Europe nobody really cares about this symbolic protests anyway. Brexit, refugees, populism, xenophobia, terrorism, security needs, borders, social inequality, economic challenges, menacing neighbours, reluctant friends, conspiracy fears, ambiguous lobbies and so forth – are just some of the latest European challenges. So why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?
In this context, the question is how the criticised leaders/government(s) and their (European) partners will eventually deal with the situation. Their reaction can really set the tone for follow ups in the long run and even have collateral effects. One thing became clear though with the latest events: ‘ostrich policies’, notoriously counterproductive, could only postpone the issue, without addressing its root causes. Moreover, denials could also complicate the picture, with propaganda messages coming in, while fueling populism or delegitimising the enemy of the “moment” through accusations of double standards.
5. People need (new) role models that inspire and motivate
Rather ironically for (yet) a(nother) story about politicians accused of corruption or of backtracking on the fight against corruption, events in Bucharest have eventually shown just how much effort a country like Romania has been putting in the last years to fighting corruption or countering abuse of office by public servants. According to experts and anti-governmental protesters that took the streets, the process is not a perfect one and still needs adjustments. However not on the substance, not by undermining its core activities. Through ups and downs, the Romanian DNA agency, responsible for fighting corruption has been very active in trying to clean up the country and sent to jail even a former prime minister, dozens of former MPs and businessmen. It’s not necessarily on good terms with the current cabinet and with the political party that has just won elections. However, according to local experts, #PeoplePower supporters in Bucharest say they would protest even against this watchdog if allegations of abuse of office on their part came up as well. In other words, nobody should be above the law.
For those singing for change on the streets of Bucharest together with their kids or parents, it’s all about education. It’s about “education for democracy”, from an early age, perceived as the most appropriate solution for promoting new role models for a better, more decent society. Their example went viral and the German TV channel Zdf came up even with a cartoon for kids and adults, explaining how corruption works and how one should protest against it, just like the Romanians did in the past weeks. In other words, #PeoplePower made in Bucharest has somehow served as a role model. At least in Germany. The question is whether this is a sort of snowball effect throughout Europe and around. Especially in those countries ending up regularly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
I’ll stop here for now but this is definitely not the end of the story. My feeling is that the five things learnt these past weeks could help any player advance. Like in the ancient proverb, we’ll just have to check the timing and see who builds ‘walls’ or ‘windmills’ when facing this new wind of change blowing from the east.
Gabriela Preda, journalist and academic (PhD), specialising in foreign affairs and media analysis
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