News that hundreds of thousands of Romanian citizens have gathered in the streets to defend democracy and the fight against corruption has travelled the world in the last days. From a quiet EU member state, with the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism operated by the European Commission still in place ten years after EU accession and “not ready” for political reasons to join the Schengen Area, Romania has turned into a model state for all other EU member states. On what? On the impressive record of indicted high-level politicians, unprecedented in any other EU country. Francois Fillon’s alleged conflict of interest would have been discovered years ago in Romania by the vigilant eyes of the feared (and sometimes dreaded) National Anti-Corruption Directorate. But what triggered these reactions and how serious is the situation?
Romania is no exception from being the target of anti-elite fury in Europe and America. Disgruntled by the political establishment and the kleptocratic economic elite, Romanians were forced to emigrate in their millions from a polarized society with flagrant and rampant economic and social inequalities. With an important difference. While in US blue-collar workers, alienated in their cultural and economic rights, were the engine of the Trumpist “revolution” and made his improbable presidency a reality, in Romania the fight is led by the white-collar, college-educated and pro-globalization urban, young. They are protesting against the invisible but palpable walls built by a predatory political and economic elite inside the country. They are on the streets not for isolating the country, but for a more open Romania looking towards the West and for what liberal democracy, rule of law, and good governance stand for.
For the past 27 years, since the Revolution of 1989 when the communist regime was violently overthrown, Romania has learned, step by step, the lessons of democracy and rule of law. It was not an easy process, it had its steps back and involved a considerable amount of struggle. But, today, Romania is a pillar of stability in a tormented region and loyal to the European project, even if this project has some of its own identity issues. In a fragmented and diminished EU, Romanians want more, not less, Europe. With a resurgent Russia, an inward-looking America, and a region tormented by illiberal impulses, Romanians on the streets know that the answer is not isolated nationalism, but a ever closer union with the West. And transparent, accountable, and less rapacious politicians.
For those who are on the street, and also for those that chose not to protest in this manner, the Emergency Ordinance through which the Government decided to amend the Criminal Code on sensitive matters such as amnesty, graft and abuse of power was the trigger. But the real causes run deeper and can be found in extensive frustration with the political and financial elite that has run Romania for the last almost three decades, with the level of poverty and low standard of living, with the fact that Romanian youth is forced to work abroad for decent pay, even though that work is sometimes humiliating, with the fact that Romanians are still treated as second-hand citizens in many European countries. Yes, it is an ugly truth, but in order to understand the effect, we must look squarely at the root causes.
This is deep frustration with a social and economic model that has run out of steam, one that brought a huge and growing inequality between the 1% and the rest of the country. In 2017, Romania is still bottom in most European rankings in terms of income, healthcare, education or infrastructure. 70% of GDP comes from the top 12 cities. The discrepancies are so enormous they can no longer be tolerated by the people.
Romanians have understood that the main cause of their problems is the high level of corruption. And when they saw politicians trying to protect themselves against Justice, the spark was lit. Even if the reactions of “The Street” are against the current social democrat government, the fury is against the entire political class. It is not an issue of ideology, of Right or Left, even though the Social Democratic Party (PSD) is going to pay the bill this time. After leading a good election campaign, with a record high of 45% of the popular vote in Parliamentary elections last December, the PSD is now confronted with a dilemma. The votes they received were for their economic program, aiming at more redistributive policies, not a carte blanche for stalling and reversing the fight against corruption. But the right-wing Opposition, now trying to surf this wave of discontent, is also mistrusted by the hundreds of thousands of young protesters. They are part of the same political establishment loathed by the people. In the absence of clear public policies that will undo the damage done by the economic model in place so far, the frustration of the population will grow even further, political cycles even shorter, and outbursts of public anger the norm, not the exception.
Regardless of how the situation looks, Romania is today more stable and predictable than any other country in the region. It is not a country confronted with a crisis, but one that has discovered the benefits of democracy. Romania chose not to trust populist parties and their promises, unlike a number of other Western and Central European countries, and to take their discontent to the street and fight for their right to live in a better Romania.
With the government backpedalling and withdrawing the infamous Emergency Ordinance, Romania’s democracy has passed its maturity exam. Citizens discovered their power; they are now the active watchdog of democracy, open government, and decency in public life in their country.