On the night of January 31, 2017 the four-week-old government of Social Democratic Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu issued a decree that decriminalized corrupt activities valued at less than 200,000 lei, or £40,000. Implementation of Executive Ordinance No 13 would have resulted in many key political figures being released from prison or having charges dropped. Reaction on the street was immediate. An estimated 600,000 Romanians joined protests to oppose the measure until the government was forced to repeal it on February 13.
This did not end the protests. At the time of writing, they have spread to 81 cities in 36 countries, reflecting the expansion of the diaspora since Romania joined the European Union in 2007.
Protests in Romania in recent years have a partial record of success. In 2012, Prime Minister Emil Boc resigned after violent demonstrations against health reforms. In 2013, popular opposition halted a Canadian project to mine for gold using cyanide leaching. Angry protests after the 2015 fire in the Colectiv nightclub in which 64 mostly young people perished and many others were injured had an arguably more lasting effect. The deaths were directly attributed to breaches of health and safety regulations that had been signed off illegally, possibly due to bribery. The tragedy added to the pressure which prompted the resignation of Victor Ponta as prime minister.
But these were single issue protests. Grindeanu’s decree galvanized opposition to a political elite seen to be using their positions for personal advantage. The protesters’ move in huge numbers to the seat of government at Victory Square recalled the revolutionary fervour that unseated the autocratic regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
That revolution left a void in Romanian politics, one that was filled by the National Salvation Front. While claiming to be ushering in democracy, behind the scenes it was transferring state wealth into the hands of its members or supporters. A proto-capitalist elite emerged which controlled the distribution of power and wealth. The stranglehold of this elite remains strong.
In theory the EU had the power to demand wholesale reform of Romanian politics as the price of accession. Anti-corruption legislation was drawn up as early as 2003, and some high-profile figures found themselves facing prosecution. This legal framework satisfied EU officials who promised in 2002 that Romania could join by 2008 at the latest even if all accession conditions had not been fully met.
The reality of this anti-corruption effort was revealed in 2008 by Cristi Danilet, a former adviser to the Minister of Justice. He chronicled 11 common forms of corruption in Romanian politics including taking bribes, selling influence, manipulating competition over tenders, fraud, blackmail and embezzlement. Danilet also argued that anti-corruption laws could be circumnavigated by skilful lawyers.
The seeming desperation of the EU to expand its membership and influence led to a light touch approach that empowered corrupt leaders. Despite threats from Brussels that EU entry would be postponed and poor reports from ambassadors in Bucharest and ratings agencies, Romanian politicians have managed to avoid serious reforms.
Accession to the EU led many disillusioned young Romanians to seek a future elsewhere. According to the UN’s 2015
International Migration Report, 3.6 million Romanians have moved abroad, and it is the country with the world fastest rising rate of emigration after war-torn Syria.
But these statistics hide the fact that many others remained and formed a professional cadre who sought to create a future at home in an open, democratic nation unfettered by corruption. These people have formed a new generation of protesters which some see as inspired by the 1989 generation which ended the Ceausescu regime, but others see as having been activated by their personal experience.
The Colectiv fire can be seen as a seminal event that propelled this generation into more active forms of political participation. Younger, better-educated Romanians with a more global outlook appeared to share a desire for change. It was this desire that was first seen in the successful 2014 presidential campaign of Klaus Iohannis, a popular anti-corruption campaigner.
‘The roots of the protest are clear to see: they are fuelled by dissatisfaction with a system which has done little to stem corruption’
Suspicions that Prime Minister Victor Ponta was excluding the diaspora from voting in the election − and perceptions that his own regime was corrupt − created a readiness to take action in support of Iohannis. These forms of political participation were revived in 2017, when social media provided a platform to connect protest groups within Romania and globally.
While no leaders emerged to head this movement, young communications professionals created the hashtag #rezist as a focal point to challenge the state-supporting media. They created an online channel, Victory Square TV, to combat government propaganda suggesting protesters were in the pay of George Soros, the international investor and founder of the Open Society Foundation, or foreign multinationals.
But like the global Occupy movement and the anti-austerity Indignados in Spain, the lack of leadership and a clear vision for the future suggests the protesters’ impact may be limited.
The focal point at present is Rezistenta, a Facebook group which carries on the anti-corruption struggle, although there are at least two groups using this name, one associated with the right-wing Frontul Popular Crestin, the Christian Popular Front. There is also a factionalism dividing protesters, some promoting a socially liberal political programme while others contest this as replicating American protest organizations. Issues such as LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, the power of the Church and Romania’s relationship with the EU remain key contested points.
The roots of the protest are clear to see: they are fuelled by long-term dissatisfaction with a system and a legal framework that evolved after the fall of Ceausescu and which has done little to stem corruption. The spark which drove them to the streets was outrage that those responsible for the Colectiv fire would be exonerated by Grindeanu’s decree.
Whether they contributed to the current political instability, caused by the collapse of the two-party coalition government and removal of Grindeanu as prime minister in June, is a moot point. Some see this as the result of an internal party struggle, one in which Liviu Dragnea, leader of the Social Democratic Party and one of the potential beneficiaries of the now repealed Executive Ordinance No 13, was ousted to save the party. Meanwhile, new legislative proposals incorporating the principles of the repealed decree have found their way into the Parliament and Senate and, if passed, may have serious consequences.
The protests may have led to a reshuffling within the governing group and maintained attention on the need to continue the fight against corruption. They did not, however, change the composition of the elite or bring about a new political culture.
As Romania appears to be entering a new period of political instability, the organizations that emerged out of the protest appear fragmented and unable to sustain their challenge to the regime. And yet, it is undeniable that since 2010 Romania’s protests have promoted some degree of political change, so perhaps the current instability is a necessary evil for the nation to progress.