The Romanian Protests

Why have hundreds of thousands of Romanians taken to the streets this month against a nominally center-left government?

A protest in Romania on February 5, 2017. Eusebiu Balauca / Flickr

Recent events in Romania are hard to believe.

On January 18, the newly elected Social Democratic Party (PSD) government — in office for only two weeks — proposed a draft “emergency decree” retroactively decriminalizing offenses, commuting sentences, and amnestying convicted criminals.

The stated goal — to address prison overcrowding and avoid a European Union fine. The true goal — to pardon and protect a whole raft of loyal PSD politicians and public officials facing prosecution for  crimes such as corruption in office (now decriminalized for sums less than $48,000) among a host of others (pardoned for sentences less than five years).

Still more outrageous, the government’s draft decree was self-serving for obvious reasons. Romanians quickly realized that the most immediate beneficiary of it would be none other than the PSD’s leader, Liviu Dragnea.

Facing charges of defrauding the state of $25,000 (conveniently less than $48,000), he is also currently serving a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud (conveniently less than five years). That conviction debarred Dragnea from becoming prime minister (a puppet ally was appointed instead), but the draft decree offered him the opportunity of “clearing” his name and finally fulfilling his much-stated prime ministerial ambitions.

The Mass Demonstrations

The January 18 demonstrations only turned out a couple thousand. But four days later, thirty thousand appeared on the streets, joined by Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, and by the leader of the National Liberal Party, the main center-right opposition, desperately seeking to capitalize on the discontent. In the December 2016 elections, the National Liberals had been trounced at the polls, winning just 20 percent of the vote to the PSD’s 45 percent. On January 29, with little sign that the government intended to drop its draft decree, demonstrator numbers trebled to ninety thousand.

Then, at 10 PM on January 31, in an act of stunning contempt for public opinion, the government announced that it had passed the “emergency decree” into law and that it would come into force within days.

The following night, three hundred thousand rallied, and on February 5, a day after the government rescinded its decree but indicated it would seek parliamentary approval for some of its original proposals, over half a million poured onto the streets of Bucharest angrily demanding the government’s resignation. Four days later, a scapegoat, the country’s justice minister, resigned. The protests continue with fifty thousand again assembled last weekend.

These are the bare facts, but much lies behind them. The three key actors in this story — the PSD, the center-right, and the mass of Romanians — are embroiled in a struggle with its own particular dynamic. But it is a dynamic that cannot be adequately understood unless it is also placed in the broader context of relations with and between the European Union, the United States, and Russia.

A Corrupt Transition

In Romania, as in the Balkans more generally, a particularly corrupt form of capitalism, heavily dependent on mutually rewarding relationships between favored businesses, state bureaucrats, and politicians, reigns supreme.

The PSD, the ruling Communist Party of old, is the party par excellence of this crony capitalism. It played a pivotal role managing and overseeing the transition from the statist economy of the Cold War era to the privatized, neoliberal economy of today, while ensuring financial advantage for itself and its allies. It remains a key mediator of the sometimes brazenly incestuous relations between business and bureaucracy. In short, the PSD is the principal party of the Romanian ruling class.

Little wonder, then, that the PSD, and those tempted into its orbit, are so embroiled in corruption. Since 2013, a host of mayors, parliamentarians, judges, prosecutors, businessmen, ex-ministers, and one PSD prime minister has been convicted of abuse of power.

Moreover, in 2015, demonstrations led to the collapse of the last PSD government and the resignation of its prime minister, Victor Ponta, after sixty-four young Romanians perished in a nightclub fire caused by bribed officials turning a blind eye to safety regulations. Only last summer, Ponta was charged with offering a seat in parliament to a media mogul, one of the richest men in Romania and a leading PSD member, in return for $250,000 to cover the costs of a visit by — of all people — Tony Blair.

And yet, despite all this, there is the apparent conundrum that the PSD was the runaway victor of the December 2016 elections. The extent of that victory should not, it is true, be overstated — turnout was less than 40 percent — but it remains a measure of popular feeling. How is this explainable?

Here context is crucial, for the austerity measures imposed on Romania after the 2008 recession were among the most severe of any in Europe. Against this background, the PSD has sought to shore up the loyalty of its base — impoverished workers in the cities and peasants in the countryside — by offering limited relief at election time in the form of wage rises, pension increases, and VAT cuts.

This isn’t about principle, just an electoral calculus. Nevertheless, for many, it’s better than nothing, understandably enough, not least because the PSD’s main political opponents have been the parties of the center-right who spearheaded Romania’s brutal and now notorious austerity program — subsequently paying a heavy political price for doing so.

The Cost of Austerity

Unlike the PSD, the center-right in Romanian politics has been a comparatively unstable political force characterized by multiple parties with shifting loyalties, splits, and coalitions, including coalition government with the PSD in some cases.

Nevertheless, from time to time, the center-right has managed to take more or less coherent political shape, the national coalition government with the PSD elected in 2008 to address the global economic crisis being one such instance. Within a year, the PSD was in opposition, but the center-right soldiered on with the support of the president, adopting a set of crushing austerity measures. Public-sector wages were cut by 25 percent; social security benefits by 15 percent; and VAT increased from 19 percent to 24 percent.

Of all the public-sector jobs lost in Europe in 2010, 21 percent were lost in Romania, a country with a population of less than 20 million.

The final straw was the government’s attempt to reform the health sector by privatizing hospitals. In early 2012, demonstrations broke out in multiple cities across Romania, turning violent in Bucharest. Eventually, the government fell and its prime minister resigned.

The center-right has never quite recovered. Its recent yearlong support for the unelected, technocratic government led by a former EU agricultural commissioner, appointed in 2015 by the current president, Klaus Iohannis, in the wake of the political crisis precipitated by the deadly horror of the nightclub fire, has done nothing to revive its political fortunes. The main center-right party today, the National Liberals, stood at the December 2016 elections on a platform of continuing the economic policy of the technocrats, and was soundly defeated.

Between Merkel and Trump

Romania joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007. Its strategic position is significant; it shares its northern border with Ukraine; hosts an $800 million NATO missile defense shield opened last year; and has recently taken NATO reinforcements, as tension with Russia rises. The PSD and the center-right both embrace this Euro-Atlantic strategy, but their individual commitments have differing political emphases that have recently become clear.

It is common knowledge that Romania’s accession to NATO and the European Union was hastened as part of the West’s expansionist drive towards Russia. In fact, Tony Blair was instrumental in hastening this act and overriding doubts in the wake of the bombing of Serbia in 1999. Inevitably, this meant “softening” membership criteria, particularly those relating to “transparency” given Romania’s problem with endemic corruption, as well as looking more favorably on the PSD.

Corruption is therefore never just about corruption; it was about politics then and it is about politics now. An EU that was more forgiving of corruption then and a center-right deeply embedded in it itself, now presses Romania’s anti-corruption agency to become ever more effective.

After all, those forces — President Iohannis is known to be close to Angela Merkel — are anxious to focus the attention of Romanians on corruption as the key source of poverty and inequality, rather than the repeated austerity measures taken to reduce Romania’s budget deficit to 3 percent of GDP, in line with EU strictures. They also know that the prime target of any anti-corruption drive is certain to be the PSD.

The PSD does not oppose austerity; it opposes some of the extremes it has taken in Romania for the simple reason that to do otherwise would decimate its electoral base and bring to an end its key role as the principal party of the Romanian ruling class. Nevertheless, it knows only too well that it is not presently favored in Berlin. The election of Donald Trump, with his more challenging attitude to the European Union, and Germany in particular, is an opportunity the PSD leadership was swift to seize in order to enhance its international credibility.

With political crisis brewing at home over its draft emergency decree, the PSD leader, Dragnea, together with his prime minister, flew to Washington to attend a private pre-inauguration dinner with Trump. The cost of the visit was reportedly in the region of $1 million. Dragnea subsequently posted photos of his handshake with Trump on Facebook, writing that he had told Trump he wanted to take US-Romanian relations to a new level, and that Trump had replied, “We will make it happen! Romania is important for us!” That, however, appears to have been extent of their “discussion.”

In the world of Balkan politics, an event, or rather a stunt, such as this — in which the powerful appear to bestow special favor on the powerless — carries much exaggerated weight in domestic politics. So much so, in fact, that it helps explain the PSD’s decision to issue its emergency decree. For that decision was motivated not only by the extent of the PSD’s election victory, or its desire to pardon its corrupt loyalists, or Dragnea’s overwelming ambition to become prime minister. Above all, it reflected the arrogantly overconfident ego of a PSD leadership seeking to bask in the illusory glory of a fleeting handshake and a snatched word with the most powerful and dangerous man in the world.

The Left

There is only one political alternative in Romania today, and it lies with the protesters. Their track record is, as we have seen, impressive.

In the last five years, they have felled a center-right government for its crushing austerity policy, and a PSD government for the deadly climate of corruption it bred. And they have now triggered a political crisis for a new PSD government at a time when the center-right is still too discredited to gain much political traction. In fact, none of the mainstream political parties commands anything beyond the superficial loyalties of Romanians, some 60 percent of whom consistently do not vote. This is the Romanian version of the crisis of the “extreme center.”

It is therefore in the streets, rather than at the ballot box, that Romanians have become accustomed to pursuing their political goals, spurred on still by the memory of their heroic overthrow of Ceaușescu in 1989. And it is there that the Left must join them if it is to carve out a viable national organization and a concretely radical program that can break into the mainstream of political life.

The arguments the Left will have to employ — the need to struggle against neoliberal austerity and corruption from below, to radically redistribute Romania’s wealth, to expropriate the country’s super-rich moguls, to challenge Romania’s relationship with the European Union and the United States, to support neutrality between east and west, to advocate the idea of a Balkan federation as the best defense against imperialism and nationalism — will be tough to make, for they signal a decisive break with the asphyxiating consensus of Balkan politics of the last quarter century.

They will require astuteness, courage, determination, principled flexibility, self-discipline, not to mention the kind of political clarity that will see through the pseudo-leftism of the PSD and the europhilism of the center-right. But above all, these arguments will need to be rooted in an overriding commitment to the struggles of ordinary Romanians.