The protest that took place in Bucharest on August 10 brought Romania into the spotlight again. What drew attention even more was the unprecedented violent actions taken against the protesters. The General Prosecutor’s Office started an official investigation that is looking both into who gave the orders to use violence and whether the Gendarmerie acted in strict accordance with the law.
What, at a first glance, might seem like a revolt against the current government has deeper roots and reflects an ongoing process designed to build democratic stability and economic growth. A process that takes longer than expected by most Romanians. Romanian citizens are angry and frustrated about a corrupt and faulty system. For thirty years they have continued to hope that one day Romania will be as developed as its Western neighbours. But this dream seems farther away from reality than ever.
Protests in Romania did not begin last year. It was in 2012 that Romanians first took their discontent onto the streets, a movement that lead to the overthrow of the Government. For twenty years, there had been the hope that once Romania joined the EU, progress would come. But the two years designed to prepare our country for the benefits of membership were almost completely wasted by the government in office at the time. Moreover, President Basescu and his team did everything they could to win a second mandate, including hiding the effects of the economic crisis that was bursting out all over the world. This led to the extremely tough measures taken in 2010, when millions of Romanians working in public administration, schools, hospitals, police found their wages cut by 25% over night.
As the latest World Bank country diagnosis of Romania shows, the best description could be “a tale of two Romanias”. On one hand, large cities have developed and integrated within the EU and, on the other, small towns and rural areas have become even more isolated. Despite the 6.9% GDP growth in 2017 according to Eurostat, inter-regional discrepancies have increased. The quality of public services (schooling, hospitals etc) has decreased. Bureaucracy has become a never-ending maze. The fight against corruption, despite its positive results, has also brought a deadlock inside the public administration because employees are afraid to put their signature on official documents. This has mainly been caused by the fact that the process of rooting out corruption was not matched by programs focusing on prevention and good governance. Therefore, for most of the citizens, living in Romania has become rather exhausting.
And people are disappointed, by their rulers and by the institutions they believed in. Even by the fight against corruption. In her last days as head of DNA, Laura Kovesi and her team lost a significant number of cases, giving those that contested her arguments to claim that many of the prosecutions were not grounded in real facts.
Romania is today at a crossroads, as it has been many times in its history. We can either make the step towards becoming a real Western democracy or stick to the old-fashioned Balkan method of governing. A few months before Romania’s EU Presidency, the country is about to lose an important opportunity to prove that we deserve a seat at the European table.
Moreover, in the next two years there will be four types of elections (for the European Parliament, presidential, local and parliamentary). Meanwhile, everybody in Romania ignores the fact that there is serious turmoil in emerging markets (Turkey, Argentina). The divisions inside the EU and NATO are deepening.
Unfortunately, the so-called political elite (from all political parties) is rather superficial and not prepared for such a moment. Besides the rather poor quality of the current government in terms of performance, the opposition is weak and divided, the President is more concerned about winning a new mandate rather than being the mediator the country needs, while foreign and Russia-friendly interests are more and more visible, supporting causes that are divisive inside society.
Thus, the only solution more and more Romanians envisage is taking their anxiety and frustrations onto the streets. And, most of the time, they are right to do so. It is a signal that they have not lost their hope that one day Romania will find its path towards democracy and progress.