For almost a week now, near half million of people in Romania have been protesting in the country against an emergency law that would had decriminalised some corruption practices in the government. After massive mobilisations and high social pressure, the government has withdrew the emergency law. However, thousands of demonstrators gathered around Romania’s main government building in Bucharest yesterday to continue pushing for a transparent and democratic government and to make sure that their demands do not vanish into thin air. We speak to Paul Vîrvea, an activist living in Bucharest who has participated in the protests since the beginning, and Oana Marinescu, communication consultant.
Romania’s Social Democrats returned to power in December’s election. Since then, they have tried to approve an emergency bill pardoning corrupt politicians, a measure that would officially decriminalise corruption. How do Romanians perceive corruption in their country? Why this has been the spark to mobilise citizens in the country?
Paul Vîrvea: There are two types of Romanias in terms of social and cultural values – hence two perceptions on corruption. What we witness nowadays is the reaction of one of these two Romanias – the smaller one, the one who grew with internet, with urban education, who had the possibility to travel abroad and catch many European behaviour patterns (including civic attitude against something they perceive as hurting their interests). Historically and culturally, Romanians as a whole display a rather passive-lax attitude towards corruption, as it is an atemporal, perpetual part of their lives for centuries. This attitude is rooted in Christian Orthodoxy and Levantine influence and has been “perfected” by the Communist era. This is a palpable reality in deeper Romania, in smaller towns and in villages. Therefore, unfortunately, however big we see this protest grow, we still talk about the exception, rather than the norm in perceiving corruption as a crime. So the mobilising “spark” makes sense and works only for a minority who is outlooking, westward-minded and embraces change. The bigger, deeper Romania is defined by a either passive, or hostile attitude towards change, including change of their perception in corruption.
Oana Marinescu: From a wider perspective, one can easily talk about a “Romanian paradox” about corruption. On the one hand, according to opinion polls, corruption tops public agenda as a source of concern. On the other hand, some Romanians vote for convicted politicians, or for candidates with legal problems, as if the vote is a sort of “personal transaction”, based on charisma and populist promises. Moreover, in the day to day life, some people still pay bribes for the services they would have been entitled to without that illegal money – petty corruption. They do not believe things would go well without that informal incentive, while people who get bribed think that they are entitled to it. Somehow it is part of a cultural pattern with long historical roots, that needs to change.
But what has happened in the past years is that more and more people have got enough with this type of transaction. They have realized that high level corruption maintains communities in dark poverty, while some politicians and business-people got richer and richer. They have also noticed that the judicial system has started to corner and to sentence corrupt people. From the perspective of a former communist society this is huge, despite the flaws still marking the activity of the law enforcement agencies, that they need to address.
People who have got enough with corruption and want a Western-like democracy in Romania, with a genuine rule of law, are the ones who have taken to the streets in the past fortnight. They lack or have a very poor political representation – the center-right parties have not managed to fully earn their trust in the past rounds of elections. Many of them did not even vote. They have no other way to express their dissent but the social media and the public squares.
That is why they are marching: Romanians are representing themselves and hold the Government accountable in the public space. Coming to the last part of the question – the spark igniting this unprecedented level of discontent – I want to stress two things:
First and foremost, my assessment is that we have been witnessing a growing trend of social awakening, in the past 4-5 years. Mostly young and middle-aged, educated, urban people are part of it – which is not particularly the PSD electorate. They are informed, they care about what is happening, and, step by step, by smaller civic actions, they have realized that they can bring a contribution and make a change. Politicians seem not to have understood this trend and have not found a way to reach out to these citizens. They are there, ready to get organized by themselves, communicating via social media and personal networks, and ready to act.
Secondly, the magnitude of the revolt was triggered by the magnitude of the fraud intended by the Government: a) they have tried to change the penal law for the privilege of politicians with corruption files and criminal convictions – including the president of PSD, Liviu Dragnea, who cannot become a prime-minister because he was convicted for rigging elections; b) they have overcome the balance of powers as constitutionally stated, trying to enforce on the legal system their political and personal agenda; c) they lied and tried to force people to accept their decision by adopting the ordinance at night, in total secrecy, which is against the democratic principles of public accountability and transparency of the government; d) they had a clear intent to decriminalize certain corruption acts, as they carried on with the project despite the public warnings of the head of state, civil society, legal agencies; e) they have a larger plan, as it was later revealed: they had adopted also another ordinance waiving the interdiction for local authorities to limit the expenses to the budgetary credit and allowing them to change the destination of the public money foreseen in the budget (both actions were previously forbidden by law). This is linked with a program worth 6.6 bln euro, from which the allocations can be made by a single minister, loyal to the chairman of the PSD, without any other checking. The fear is that that money will be used only for PSD administration and will finance the companies connected to it.
This means that the Romanian society faces a huge stake: we risk to have our rule of law sacrificed for the benefit of politicians, who have taken advantage of their position of power to drain public money and for the politicians who now have the possibility to decide on the use of billions of Euro. Once an anti-democratic precedent is set, the question is: what will follow next, because they will need to consolidate the acquired privileges? People in the street have protested to save and protect the rule of law, while the PSD has tried to bribe disadvantaged social categories by increasing the minimum wage or giving free train rides to students. It’s a new rise of populism, putting in danger our democracy. And even PSD voters have taken to the streets protesting against the Government, while a poll quoted by a PSD leader show a 23% decrease in its popular support in the Iasi county.
How is the government responding to the protests now? What are the expectations?
Paul Vîrvea: The Government, in my opinion, is confused because it has put all bets on social behaviour specific to their bigger, passive, docile Romania, where the ruling party draws its main electoral power. I think the PSD (the biggest party in the current government coalition) did expected some protests but hoped they would die down as many other protests in the past – because this is the way Romanians historically act in discontent. There have been resignations within the second and third layer party ranks, a VP of the party publicly sided against the Government decision, a minister perceived as a technocrat resigned and a MEP publicly shunned his party’s decision to not back down.
Different waves of protests have spread in Romania over the last years. What is different this time?
Paul Vîrvea: The context. We are less than two months away from parliamentary elections clearly won by the Social-Democrat Party (PSD) thanks mostly to a huge absence rate (less than half of Romanians able to vote showed up at the ballot box on December 11 last year, and PSD enjoys a stable, disciplined electoral base). Shocked by the results, a big chunk of those who did not vote felt somewhat guilty and right now try to “redeem” their absence at the vote with protest.
Oana Marinescu: The core difference is the fear that we would lose our democracy. We lived in communism, we know what a totalitarian rule means. We do not want to get back there! It is a protest for democratic values pushed by a young democracy. And I feel proud to be part of it!
What responses are the protesters expecting from the rest of Europe?
Paul Vîrvea: Precisely what we are getting already, if not a bit more. Western embassies and Western leaders blasting the Romanian Government’s decision and pressuring it to back down, combined with shows of solidarity for the protesters from the public.
Romania is one of Europe’s poorest countries, its banking sector is almost entirely foreign owned, and many of its politicians are corrupt. Why right-wing parties are not entering the Parliament?
Paul Vîrvea: We are only 27 years away from totalitarianism. It exists in the living memory of anybody aged 25 or older, if not directly, at least because Communism has never left the public debate. We craved for democracy and freedom of movement and better living standards. I would say many of us are so traumatised by Communism that we would prefer a phony democracy, rather than an honest authoritarian regime. Besides, there is a fortunate mixture of specifics from both Romanians mentioned above that keeps us away from extreme right temptations (as we see in Netherlands, France or Austria). This mixture deserves a separate debate. Fact is, the two far-right parties competing in last year’s elections got a total of 3pct of the vote combined – not enough to ensure any entry in the Parliament.
Oana Marinescu: Actually there are some center-right parties in the Parliament. I do not know whether to count 2 or 3, because one of them has no clear ideology. The problem is their poor political leadership. The right-wing parties have not differentiated themselves from the left. They even made alliances with PSD, losing public trust. As long as you do not position yourself differently, you do not promote right-wing principles, but speak the same populist language as PSD, because you think it works, you do not reach out to the electorate that might support you. And we come to the situation described above: more and more voters are not represented by political parties.
What do you think has been the motivation of the government to stop the new law?
Oana Marinescu: I am not convinced that they have any real motivation to stop it. I am afraid that they will look for new solutions to limit the judicial power, for their sake. For PSD, that has been a concern in the past 4 years. The general prosecutor has recently said that about 25-30 MPs would have been advantaged by the ordinance. Do you think that they would give up, under such circumstances? Many people in the streets doubt it. And you can see the proof: the PSD leaders keep attacking the protesters for being paid by Soros, by foreign agencies, for having a political agenda, for wanting to revert the outcome of the elections in December 2016, for menacing the territorial integrity of the country, or they threaten to fine them for taking the children to protests. It is a very negative and divisive propaganda, while they claim that the only problem with the ordinance was its poor communication. No, the problem was their overt intention to overrule the rule of law and the public interest for their private, petty interest! Some journalists say, based on anonymous sources, that the withdrawal of the ordinance was the decision of the prime-minister, who opposed the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who had wanted to keep it. The assumption is that the prime-minister got scared by the scale of the protest. Imagine that there were 500.000 people in the streets in Bucharest and several cities around the country, on February 5. It was huge and unprecedented in Romania.
Many have described the protests as the biggest since 1989, how do you foresee the protests evolving after the actions taken by the government?
Oana Marinescu: Indeed, they have been the largest and most impressive protests in Romania by now. The atmosphere has been great in the streets. The Romanian sense of humor and creativity have transformed the pain, the revolt and the fear caused by the decision of the government into a real show of freedom of expression. It is hard to foresee now what will happen, unfortunately, because PSD lacks credibility and predictability, and because of the means they have used. For sure the distrust in the government and the political class has grown, and educated, urban people are more prone to get involved now than ever before. They will be the real opposition to the PSD. The parliamentary opposition still has to convince that it has the political capacity to fulfill its role. To conclude: it is not over yet. We have a chance to make our democracy win, which would consolidate it, but we do have many wars to fight. And the lesson that we all need to learn is that citizens come first, irrespective their political views, and we must not accept any abuse against any citizen, neither from an abusive political class, nor from abusive institutions, be them part of the law enforcement or the judicial system.