Romania's democracy has been faltering in the last few years. The country has been struggling to shed off its communist history and has seen protest after protest in the last few years as the youth fight to upend the old corrupt order. Georgiana Constantin argues that, while many Romanians are unhappy with the current political situation, much must be done if Romania is to become a stronger democracy.
For the past few years, Romania has been going through great civil discontent. There have been protests and other social and political agitations. Serious protests started in the wake of the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire which killed 64 and injured more than 140 people. The tragedy was linked to corruption and the disregard of city fire safety codes. Ensuing demonstrations resulted in the ousting of the Prime Minister, his cabinet, and a mayor. The movement was dubbed the #ColectivRevolution.
In the beginning of 2017, people took to the streets again protesting the modifications made to the country’s penal code and the government’s plan to pardon officials charged with bribery. Protests escalated as leaders mismanaged the situation and the country’s government ultimately went through successive changes over the course of the year. In what news stations were calling the biggest mobilization of people since the 1989 Romanian revolution, a record number of citizens—500,000 by some estimates—flooded the streets all over the country.
By early 2018, Romanians found themselves facing similar civil discontent. The 2017 protests seemed to have changed little and the populace marched against proposed laws which they believed might endanger the independence of the judicial system. In Bucharest alone, around 50,000 people protested in the streets. The laws have been adopted by the Romanian Parliament but have not yet been implemented. They are still being debated and modified as the Romanian Constitutional Court has declared some articles to be unconstitutional. The European Parliament is also taking part in the discussion by voicing its concerns regarding the matter.
It is clear that the country is going through turbulent times. However, some might look at the recent protests as civic spirit exercises. Bernstein called voting "democracy with training wheels" during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some may look at the Romanian protests as training wheels for democracy. But Romanians seem to no longer hold the same laissez faire attitude towards their government as they have in the past. Romanian philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu stated in an interview in Romanian that the “civic conscience has grown significantly during the last year. People understand that something which was unthinkable before 1990 [i.e. protests] is part of the alphabet of democracy. One is free to express their thoughts and feelings on the way in which they are governed, that is to say, on the way in which they are served.”
Others see the protests as manipulation of the masses, especially since a certain type of peer pressure has been present in the country since the 2014 presidential election. Many of the country’s youth were very vocal about their chosen candidate and tried to push their opinions on all members of their age group. They also aggressively shut down dissenting opinions on the matter. The so called ‘Facebook election’ when Klaus Johannis, an ethnic German from the Transylvanian city of Sibiu (also known as Hermanstadt), became president of Romania, was a time of social disunion. Johannis was hailed as the youth’s president and a changemaker and he won the election. His election, however, caused turbulence within generational relationships as the older demography voted for the opposing candidate while most of the youth voted for Johannis. A good number of the same groups who were vocal (in real life and especially on social media) about the necessity of voting for Johannis seemed to be just as vocal about the obligation to participate in the protests. This has become an issue in Romania because such a loud voice becomes dangerous when followed by the desire to silence opposing views. It becomes even more problematic when the loudest voice pushes for a prevailing belief that the identity of a generation is linked to the uniformity of choices. Despite the public’s hope that the youth’s choice would bring about great change, the situation has not improved. In fact, judging by the constant protests some might even think the situation has gotten increasingly unstable.
Moreover, despite their success in engaging the civic spirit, it has been pointed out on several occasions that the protests lack an effective strategy and outcome. First, they do not have any strategy in their organization and they lack a clear focus. There is also an absence of concrete demands made at these protests and the protesters point out issues but do not provide tangible solutions.
Second, the protesters do not have a leading figure or group that might be able to negotiate with the ruling power structures. There have been consultations in the past between the presidency and the leaderless groups, but they did not amount to much. There have also been calls for a leader of these movements. In fact in 2015, many nominated a local and well-known musician to become the face of the movement and represent their discontents. However, he noted that this would just be a way for people to be represented and then “move on with their lives,” which he believed would be a mistake as that was precisely the behaviour that led to the present political problems. Yet, even though the need for unity and strategy has been obvious to the people on the ground, a figure or group to lead the call for change has yet to appear.
Most importantly, however, if these movements that are unorganized and chaotic are to lead to any change in the future, they must not remain on the streets. The essential transformation which needs to take place is a deeper understanding of what makes democracy effective. It is not a constant pattern of simply voicing discontent, especially not if most are looking to others to solve the problems. Complaining or even pointing out issues helps emphasize what needs to be changed but in order to actually effect change there has to be real and invested participation in the system. That is, there must be some who are willing to get involved in politics, education, the judicial branch and all parts of the checks and balance system. That does not necessarily mean an army of a few trying to overturn the status quo, but rather a stable mass of willing, interested and educated people eager to make a change in the way things are done. It means participating in the daily workings of the nation and taking care that their choices benefit the country. It also means trying to bring actual reform instead of abiding by old communist mentalities. The communist regime left behind an overactive instinct for survival and a desire to “fool the system”. This has been at the centre of many issues involving Romania’s struggle to understand and implement democracy.
Since the fall of the communist regime, Romania’s constant strive towards effective democracy has had to overcome numerous hurdles. Immediately after the revolution, Ion Iliescu became the country’s president. He was a former member of the Communist Party and a close collaborator of the last communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Iliescu was president from the time of the Romanian revolution and won a second term in 1992. In 1996, he lost the election to Emil Constantinescu, a professor and politician, who had also been a member of the Communist Party. Iliescu made a remarkable comeback in 2000 when he was again elected president of Romania. From 2004 to 2014, Romania’s president was Traian Basescu, also a former member of the Communist Party. The most recent president, Klaus Werner Johannis claims he was not a member of the Communist Party but was a member of the Union of Young Communists.
The fact that Romania’s leaders were all involved with the Communist Party or some form of political propaganda at the time is as tragic as it is inevitable. Almost everyone had to be involved in the life of the party somehow and it was of the utmost importance to live a low-profile life if one had any semblance of disagreement towards the regime. Unfortunately, if one was committed to having a political career, involvement in the inner workings and ranks of the Communist Party was mandatory. Any ambitious person would have to rise through the ranks before they could contemplate a successful political career, and the legacy of these realities has not been a positive one. Corruption, nepotism, and crony capitalism have found fertile ground in the country. The “fool the system” mentality has been ongoing even at the highest levels of government. Progress has been made but unless efforts continue at a stable pace, there are no guarantees of long-term success.
The communist regime’s cruel realities inadvertently created the illusion that if communism wasn’t the perfect system, then surely democracy must be as it represented everything communism lacked. As such, during Communist days, any Western piece of entertainment or imported products cemented these illusions. Therefore, in order to effect change, first must come the realisation that democracy is not a perfect system, and most importantly, that it is not a system which runs on its own but rather depends on the participation of its people. Once the shackles of complacent citizenship are broken, Romanians will be free to pursue a more stable political future. They will have to first see, however, that the democratic system is one which does not allow the citizen to sit back and be ruled. It demands much effort from its subjects and can only work at its best when education and action, as opposed to apathy and victimhood, prevail. Perhaps then there will be a chance for the youth to come back from their exile and bring with them a willingness to invest in the country personally and financially. Only then will the ways of the grey communist past be buried under the sands of time and there can be a sense of renewed hope and a chance for stable, continuous progress.
Georgiana Constantin is a Political Science Doctoral candidate at the University of Bucharest in Romania. She has studied European and International Law at the Nicolae Titulescu University and writes for several international online publications.