The Romanian government tried to repeal corruption laws, and the people fought back. Just what the outcome will be is the question of the hour. These are the biggest protests since the dictator Ceausescu fell. The President of the country, Klaus Iohannis, says the nation is in crisis.
Seven days ago, the Grindeanu government of Romania issued what TIME Magazine called an “executive order.” Here’s what the diktat said: financial chicanery in office would be decriminalized, assuming the “sums involved were less than around $48,500.” Parliament was not asked for their input. If continued, the block would have stopped investigations currently underway, freed various officials, and generally changed the game.
Per Tara John, writing for TIME:
Among those who stood to benefit from the decree is president of the PSD, Liviu Dragnea. He is blocked from becoming prime minister due to corruption charges he is currently facing over defrauding the state of around $26,000, BBC reports. The order might have allowed him to stand as the country’s leader.
But if you watch cable news, you know this by now. Anybody now awake, breathing, and maintaining a consistent state of consciousness must be aware about Romania.
Perhaps you’ve spotted the immense gatherings of protesters in Bucharest’s Victory Square right about, oh, now-ish. The get-together makes for an impressive display, both in fact and in picture. History buffs among you might remember another protest in another Bucharest piazza, Palace Square, where Ceausescu gave the last speech of his career.
That incident is famous: the Dictator was broadcasting his oratory nationwide, live, to assure the people he was still in control. However, the rally turned into a popular demonstration, which became a revolt. It’s one of the few times in history you can see the very moment when a revolution happened on camera feed. That square was called Palace Square; it is now called Revolution Square. A mile away is Victory Square. History never repeats, but it echoes.
The nationwide turnout is even more remarkable when you realize that Romania’s population clocks in at 19.96 million people. By comparison, the New York-Newark-New Jersey urban agglomeration—the fancy way of saying “America’s favorite human-infested sprawl that is not the Mall of America”—weighs in at 20 million people.
For Romanians, half a million people is 2.5% of the population. The collective Women’s Marches in America scored numbers of between 3.2-4.2 million. At most, 1.4% of the United States. Romania shows everyone how it’s done.
According to the Times’ Lyman and Gillet, in an article titled “Romania Protests Simmer Despite Leaders’ Promises to Back Down”:
Romanian anticorruption protesters were out in record numbers on Sunday evening, so distrusting of their government that they refused to accept its contrite promise the night before to capitulate to their demands and rescind a decree that had decriminalized some corruption offenses. ... As many as half a million protesters were in the streets nationwide, an estimated quarter of a million in Bucharest alone. Many said they would continue at least until they were convinced that the month-old government would refrain from future efforts to weaken the country’s corruption laws. And some vowed to keep up the pressure until ministerial heads roll, or the entire government falls.
“Corruption has been the scourge of Eastern Europe,” offers the Times helpfully, as if our own government wasn’t being bought up like Hatchimals, or as if an oil CEO hadn’t just been thrown into the Secretary of Stateship by the Senatorial sorting hat. Imagine what Romania would do if their government had appointed a clueless billionaire as their Secretary of Education!
Of course, American kleptocracy has a glorious, ancient tradition behind it, sanctioned by law and custom. Our corruption is a quaint guest, who follows the rules and operates with the genteel decorum of a pirate king come to court. Compare that to Romania, where kleptocracy is apparently so brazen, so profound in its disco fabulousness, that matters have recently come to head, bigly.
“Fighters of corruption,” the Times noted, “were heartened to see Romanians turn out in the streets in the hundreds of thousands last week, day after day, until the government backed down.”
The people of Romania don’t trust the government—this is the newest fad in democracy. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s been sweeping the airwaves and Twitterverse for a while now. If I recall, President Trump had some choice words on the subject, when he was running to become Miss Universe. Now that he scored the crown, it’s back to Business as Usual, if Business was done in Hell.
But not in Romania. After the anti-corruption law was handed down, there was an outcry. The EU, from its perch sitting on top of Greece, snapped back at the Romanian state. The embassies of Canada, Belgium, Germany, Netherland, issued a joint statement with America—I’m not clear on who is left in the State Department to run the statement-writing machine—every talking mammal has quit or been purged—but the opposition was noted.
What really provided the bread to the oppositional butter were the six nights of marching and protesting which followed the order. The reigning coalition and its cronies in Parliament have a swell majority, but the people continue to mandate change. And they’re still at it. Per John, the opposition decided to keep marching even after the government had withdrawn their order: “Some protestors told the New York Times that they wanted to see ministerial resignations or the entire government felled.”
From an article in The Guardian:
“They are corrupt. We want justice … the government will still try something [with the decree],” said Emma, 24, one of between 200,000 and 300,000 people estimated to have gathered at Victory Square in central Bucharest. “They are liars and bad people,” said her friend Nicole, 25. “The government has to fall … We are going to come back here every night.”
Liviu Dragnea, current President of the Chamber of Deputies, burbled out J. Edgar Hoover-style speculations about secret, cold-handed organizers behind every protest. Dragnea told Romania TV that “The organisation of these protests and their scale show that this is a political gathering. Who is organising this? Hard to say but I hope that the state institutions have this information.”
The Prime Minister, Mr. Sorin Grindeanu, whose name sounds like some kind of classic poison-gas-meets-dance-move combination, suspects these protests are an existential threat to his government. He is correct in this assumption.
And here we come to a dilemma common to both our country and Romania. America is a republic that imagines itself to be a functioning meritocracy. When people climb to the top of the governmental ladder, and every other ladder, we assume they have done so because they are supposedly better, wiser, greater than the rest of us. But the events in our country, and in Romania, show this is not true. The leaders are self-serving clods. The elites are complaisant in the oppression; to varying extents, they participate in enabling it.
Modern democracy operates according to a pleasant fiction: we elect persons who are our representatives and they protect our rights and interests when they go to Congress or the Statehouse or the Mayor’s office.
In practice, we understand that many citizens are too busy or too detached from politics to push their elected official in the correct direction, and that many times the elected official will bend to whomever is most powerful in their constituency, which in this case means business interests and the powerful. Until now, we were willing to forgive this; as long as our politicians mostly did their jobs, we forgave them, as long as they weren’t obviously wicked or grossly incompetent.
In good times, what public representatives do matters less. They can play Cory Booker as much as they like. However, in an age such as this one, where there is clearly such a hunger for reform, and where the elites obviously do not care, the people are forced to take matters into their own hands. There’s just no other way. Our politicians are acting as if it was still the Nineties, where the job of government was to lay back and let business and globalizing run the circus. No longer. No more.
Mass protest creates an issue for the cadre of lawyers that make up our political class: what do we do if the people become actually involved in the life of the country? General popular indifference is factored into the postmodern political calculus. Nowadays, democratic citizens dwell within structures which are supposedly erected in our name, but all too often they are used to oppress us.
What happens when the people demonstrably begin to become involved in the machine? No wonder there is such ambivalence from the talking heads about the protests, why they hem and haw about popular discord: it suggests their own irrelevance. The idea of democracy leaves puffy Tories like Andrew Sullivan shrieking at the specter of the gross mob taking charge. It’s like asking McDonald’s to cheer the rise of foodie culture.
It is hard to look at the protests against Trump, or the opposition in Eastern Europe, and not conclude that some shift in power has happened. The easiest comparison is Occupy. Adam Curtis and other critics were right to knock the too-glib media narrative of Occupy and the Arab Spring.
Those movements were brilliant expressions of collective disgust, and the public correctly applauded them. But, of course, they had no long-term strategy, no infrastructure to build on, and could be hijacked over tussles on questions of turf and procedure.
Curtis suggested later that Occupy was a creature of the very civilization it was trying to save: a society which had no big ideas, in an age which had fallen victim to stories about self-organizing ecosystems and networks. Big ideas and organization were needed, and Occupy had neither; the Arab Spring had no plan to replace their overlords.
That was true. Then.
But what everyone missed, including the media that criticized Occupy and the Spring, was that these early protests were no isolated events, but the beginning of something—a kind of childhood of protesting. Like anything else in the world, opposition takes a while to build.
The first protests against Vietnam happened in 1945, and they were done by merchant marines. The Iraq War protests in America a decade ago counted about half a million people. Nothing like what we’re seeing now, and that was for an illegal war.
Consider the shipshoddy Occupy of 2011 against the agitation in Bucharest. Per Al-Jazeera:
But the nuances of the debate were not lost to protesters. As some in the crowd started asking for the resignation of the government, others immediately pointed out that the government had to stay until it withdrew the executive order and only then resign, otherwise the measures would have legal effect. This is evidence of the high level of sophistication among protesters, many of whom have participated in several waves of demonstrations in Romania since 2012 and become skillful at calling public institutions to account, communicating and organising.
With its popular clamor, its marching for a solid week, and its hope for the future, Romania shows the way. To move forward, we should look East.