By Henry Rammelt, PhD, Triangle (UMR 5206), France
That corruption pervades everyday life in Romania is a bit of a cliché, on both a domestic and international level. That people are not satisfied with the state of affairs is also not surprising. What is unexpected is Romanians’ resilience in the face of political adversity.
More than 600.000 protesters gathered all over the country yesterday evening, after the Grindeanu government rescinded a controversial decree that had been endangering current anti-corruption efforts. A wave of protests started at the beginning of last week, when the same decree was initially approved, on the night of January 31, stirred by the generalised sense of dissatisfaction with the way Romanian elected officials are using their political power. “Noaptea ca hotii!” (“Like thieves, in the night!”) became one of the essential catchphrases of the protesters.
Parts of the media and the new civil society reacted with outrage, but also fell all over themselves with enthusiasm and praise for the public’s strong reaction. Each protest was outperforming the last, with record participant numbers being reported for almost every new protest, everywhere in the country. These protests highlight a trend of discontent, also observable in other Central and Eastern European countries, at the gap between expectations and the actual achievements of the democratic transition process. Directed, in their majority, against the political establishment, the most visible protests are pillared by young, formerly politically-detached people, manifesting a growing orientation towards law and order, who are demanding to have their share in the political process. “Anti-corruption” is the common thread, and it is proving to be an efficient mobilisation framework, since it is broad enough to leave ample room for the subjective sensitivities of this generation.
The first anti-establishment protests in Romania and the first actual social movement to emerge in the past fifteen years, took place in 2011/12. Those protests are widely regarded as the moment of sudden politicisation of this generation. While these protests were characterised by a very mixed demographic base of participants, the shared opposition to the 2013 “Rosia Montana” mining project generated a feeling of “togetherness” and highlighted current differences from the politics of earlier generations. Thus, the events of 2013 were raising public awareness of the influence of the “street as actor” in post-Communist politics, and marked the moment when the collective identity of this group was shaped. The protests of November 2015, which followed the tragic fire that destroyed the Bucharest alternative concert venue “Colectiv”, further strengthened the perception of a lack of representation by traditional political actors. For this generation, it also played into a feeling of “being different” from mainstream society, often associated with the generation of the parents, the rural population, or the electorate of the Social Democratic Party (PSD).
The current situation is largely in line with this succession of anti-establishment protests that together are shaping, more and more, a specifically Romanian culture of protest. A culture of protest that is still developing, and that is, in many regards, different from those of most Western European countries, in that it is less conflictual and makes use of very up-to-date repertoires of dissent. One encounters here a humorous approach to protesting – one that makes fun of political adversaries, notably PSD president Liviu Dragnea, with funny custom-made posters, video projections on buildings, puppets – as symbolic representations of discontent. This generation’s discovery of politics and protests as the preferred channel to interact with the political system coincides with current technological developments, enabling a leaderless, spontaneous, and all-inclusive movement. The protests of 2017 appear to conform very well to modern forms of engagement. Many of the slogans and signs displayed resemble Facebook status messages or Tweets, a form of mobilisation appropriate to communicate with and within “broader lifestyle publics”. In brief, protests in Romania tend to have more elements of fun, and to place more of an emphasis on personal networks than on actual ideology. “Distractie placuta!” (“Have a good time”) is not seldom exchanged between groups of people passing each other by on their way to and from the protests.
This relational aspect of mobilisation is bolstered by a modern and active civil society, and by non-mainstream journalistic initiatives arising in response to an ever-increasing public thirst for information. At the same time, pluralism of opinion does not seem to be as highly-valued as the demand for a “civilised” country would suggest. Following minor clashes with the police by a group described as “agitators, unaffiliated” with the protests, who were throwing firecrackers and snowballs during the night of February 1, several online conflicts among protesters emerged around the best approaches to engaging with law enforcement. The current protests reveal that this new generation resonates particularly well with messages underlining the divide between the way politics have until now been done in Romania and the present expectations of belonging to a “well-mannered European society”.
The way the Grindeanu government dealt with the public further enraged parts of it, in particular this specific social group. Upon announcing the decree, many of the questions asked by journalists were left unanswered by the Minister Of Justice, Florin Iordache. He responded a total of 24 times to journalists questions with “Alta Intrebare” (“Next Question”), which made the phrase into one of the main catchphrases on the street. Particularly worrisome is the attempt of the minister of Internal Affairs to intimidate the protesters. During another press conference, the minister Carmen Dan publicly named “instigators”, presenting a list including members of Parliament and journalists. This marks a strong contrast between the current cabinet and that of Dacian Cioloș, the incumbent Prime Minister from November 2015 to December 2016, which garnered support for its calm way of governing, amplifying even more the perceived difference between the “modern” and the “old” Romania. Thus, the communication “strategy” of the current government favoured the creation of a narrative that identifies the leading party with the “old establishment”, with corruption, and even with “enemies of Romania as a European democracy”.
Whether a revival of civil spirit will also lead to the development of a critical political mindset, similar to the ‘68 generation in Western Europe, is still unclear. Six months after the Ponta government resigned, following the “Colectiv” tragedy, his party, PSD, again won the local elections and, another six months later, went on to win the parliamentary elections. A possible result of this shortness of memory could be an increased political radicalisation of a small minority within the movement, stemming from disappointment with the absence of actual structural change and the perceived “gullibility” of the majority. Apart from the long-term cultural shift this generation is setting in motion, it is hard to speculate about the outcomes of the crisis. The last six years show, however, that protests are very effective in Romania for bringing about short-term change — as far as both policy and political staff go. The February 4 rescission of the decree by the Romanian government seems to confirm that protest is indeed a way to achieve relief, for a number of new democracies, from endemic corruption and from citizens’ disenchantment with political elites.
Even though many participants celebrate the protests as contributing to “national unity”, a counter-protest by supporters of the governing parties – predominantly elderly people – also took place, reflecting the growing rifts within Romanian society.
In any case, the magnitude of the protests will certainly consolidate the “street’s” role as a visible and influential actor in future politics, as well as help to mobilize certain segments of Romanian society that have for a long time been politically passive.
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