On August 10th gendarmes broke up a protest in Piata Victoria in front of Palatul Victoria, the seat of Romania’s government. The violent intervention relied on teargas, water cannons and rubber truncheons. Riveted to our televisions, we watched the nightmare unroll live, aware that there was no way to wake up from history in the making, or from the terrible cleavage in Romanian society with its own long history. We wanted the eyes of the world fixed on Bucharest, and, more than that, we wanted foreign press and political analysts to cover the story and reflect on it in depth. What we didn’t want was the kind of objective reporting that limits itself to “this happened, and then that happened, and now the government says” because reporting without context hands the world an unbalanced story all too easily manipulated into propaganda. Now, more than ever, it was time to “meet the press” to talk with journalists and analysts, to hear what they think and express our own opinions in return. Today, DESKREPORT talks with Kit Gillet and Roland Clark. Stelian Tanase joins the discussion. JEAN HARRIS
KIT GILLET is a British freelance journalist currently based in Bucharest. His work appears regularly in the international press, for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, Monocle, The Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN. His coverage of the Giuliani letter scandal appeared in The New York Times on August 29th https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/29/world/europe/giulianiromania-corruption.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage .
ROLAND CLARK teaches modern European History at the University of Liverpool. He holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh and focuses on the cultural history of modern East-Central Europe, with a particular interest in fascism, social movements, violence, gender and religion. A Romanian speaker, he has lived and worked in Romania and has recently written ”When liberals have had enough: a new wave of protests for Romania” (https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/roland-clark/whenliberals-have-had-enough-new-wave-of-protests-in-romania). Dr. Clark is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and the Secretary of the Society for Romanian Studies.
STELIAN TANASE is a Romanian writer and public intellectual. Professor of Political Science at the University of Bucharest since 1995, talk show host, historian and novelist, he has been an authoritative, credible spokesman for civil society in post-revolutionary Romania. He has held important international scholarships, led conferences in the United States and Europe. His most recent novel is Hunting Party/Partida de vanatoare (Vremea Publishing House, 2018 )
1/ On August 10th gendarmes broke up a protest in Piata Victoria in front of Palatul Victoria, the seat of Romania’s government. The violent intervention relied on teargas, water cannons and rubber truncheons. One hundred thousand people participated in that protest. Around the country, tens of thousands more protested in Iasi, Brasov, Sibiu, Cluj, Timisoara, and other cities. Thousands from the Romanian diaspora came to Bucharest from the West specifically to show their lack of satisfaction with decisions made by V.V. Dancila’s government. What do you think caused this confrontation to break out?
It seems like there were several reasons that ultimately caused the protests on August 10 to turn out so differently to other protests that have occurred over the last 18 months or so. First, it should be said that the authorities may have been expecting a much larger crowd, given that organisers were suggesting a million people could attend, and that could easily account for the larger presence of security forces brought from elsewhere in the country and the numbers of riot police on duty. Also, the fact that so many people were coming from abroad may have added a level of uncertainty, since these weren’t necessarily the same people who had been protesting throughout this whole period. It is also quite clear that there were people in the crowds of protestors who were looking for trouble – known agitators and football hooligans, according to most accounts. Even so, I believe that the state needs to shoulder a large amount of the blame for what occurred. As someone who was in the square covering the protests that night, the fact that teargas was employed so early on, and so liberally, points to clear orders given at the start to make sure that the police remained in full control of the situation, using force if necessary. That obviously didn’t have the desired effect, given that the use of force only exacerbated the situation. A full and transparent autopsy really needs to be carried out.
The violence of 10 August had both long-term and short-term causes, and the question of what caused the protests is different to that of what caused the violence. I’d like to comment briefly on two aspects of the question: why the diaspora, and why the violence? An estimated 5 million Romanians are living and working abroad. Most left the country for economic reasons, and surveys suggest that up to 70% expect to return to Romania. Large numbers send remittances home on a regular basis. Even though it is very difficult for them to vote in elections while abroad, members of the “diaspora” thus have a vested interest in ensuring that Romania is a liberal democracy with low levels of corruption. Romanians living outside of the country have consistently voted against PSD [the Social Democratic Party] and strongly supported President Klaus Iohannis in the 2014 Presidential elections. Reports on the protests in the foreign press have been overwhelmingly sympathetic to the protesters, and many in the diaspora seem to be tired of waiting for twenty months of protests to bear fruit. The judicial reforms, the dismissal of Laura Codruţa Kövesi [from her post as chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Agency] and new laws requiring citizens working abroad to pay tax both in Romania and in their country of residence would all be the proverbial straws that broke the camel’s back. On a more cynical note, it is no accident that the diaspora protests took place during August. It is one of the few times during the year when people can use their holidays to travel to Romania, and it’s never a bad thing if one can combine an evening of protest with some sarmalute la mama acasa. Similarly, the government must be getting pretty tired of the stalemate produced by the never- ending protests, and it seems that they wanted to use 10 August as a way of bringing everything to a head. It’s worth keeping in mind that the narrative of a violent revolution was produced by pro-government media outlets in the week before 10 August. It is true that the slogan “F**k PSD” began trending on social media soon after Razvan Stefanescu’s car, with its anti-Social-Democratic Party license plate, entered the country, but it was Antena 3 and România TV that an exercise in free speech into a motto designed to “incite revolution.” A culture of minute-by-minute reporting and endless discussions about the potential significance of trivial issues encouraged presenters to dig up radicals from the diaspora who they could parade across our television sets for days on end saying that they wanted to stage a revolution and were preparing to use violence to do so. The gendarmerie’s use of violence was clearly premeditated and was designed to tarnish the protesters as unstable revolutionaries, thus discrediting the protests as a whole. If I see someone being arrested by police, I will almost always assume that the arrested person is guilty. So if I see police using tear gas, I will assume that it was necessary because the crowds got out of hand. The symbolic challenge for both sides now is to either confirm or question that narrative.
STELIAN TANASE The protest that took place on August 10th in Bucharest and the reprisals the gendarmes resorted to on the orders of higherups didn’t just pop up out of the blue. They are an episode in a long evolution that began after the last parliamentary elections. In January/February 2016 there were huge protests caused by PSD’s [the Social Democratic Party’s] attempt to pass and ordinance (Emergency Government Ordinance 13), which stipulated the decriminalization of certain offenses of which the leader himself, Liviu Dragnea, was accused. In fact, several PSD leaders found themselves in the same situation. The attempt to pass this ordinance provoked the indignation of a large part of the population and led to the newly installed powers’ being accused of corruption and lying. 600,000 protesters stood in Piata Victoria at the height of these protests. Moreover, protests were likewise staged in Romania’s largest cities. The Government was obliged to back down in the face of waves of demonstrations. That unleashed a war of nerves between the parliamentary majority and the government, on one hand, and the civil and political opposition on the other. Since then, PSD leaders have aimed to achieve amnesty and pardon of those who have penal problems and are at risk of being judged—beginning with Liviu Dragnea. PSD has begun a campaign to subordinate and politically control the judiciary. Once the protests began, the state of tension never diminished. Demonstration followed demonstration, right up to the protest that met with violent reprisals on Friday, August 10, 2018. These demonstrations will go on until the 2020 parliamentary elections.
2/After the Black Friday reprisals on August 10th, two mutually contradictory scenarios appeared in the public domain, each meant to explain what happened. 1/ Government officials maintain that the demonstrators attempted a coup d’état meant to bring down the Dancila government. 2/ The opposing opinion, from the civic and political opposition, maintains that August 10th witnessed a show of force organized by Liviu Dragnea and the Social democratic Party (PSD) meant to create chaos and conditions suitable for the introduction of a regime that would limit civil liberties and eventually install a regime similar to the Erdogan regime in Turkey. Which version of the story seems closer to the truth?
The coup d’état narrative seems farfetched, to say the least. Obviously most of the people protesting in the square did (and still do) want a change in government, but a lawful exercising of free speech is very different to a forceful attempt to overthrow the government. At the same time, the idea that PSD wanted to use the violence to create conditions suitable for the introduction of a regime limiting civil liberties also seems to give too much foresight to people like Liviu Dragnea. I don’t think either of these explanations really carries water.
I find it difficult to believe either account simply because I do not believe in conspiracy theories. A coup d’état requires close coordination of a committed group of elites ready to take power and with the ability to control sufficient force to do so. Not only have Romania’s opposition parties repeatedly demonstrated that they are unable to organize their way out of a paper bag at the moment, but seizing political power is foreign to the model of protest adopted by #rezist. Ever since February 201, the repertoires, frames, and strategies of the protesters have imitated the style of the Occupy movement and its successors. Very few social movements of the past twenty years have aimed at seizing power, and #rezist has given no indication that it wants to break with that pattern. Neither am I convinced that Dragnea and the PSD want to introduce an Erdogan-style regime. Doing so requires an ideological platform that they have not even begun to develop, and it is not clear what they might hope to gain from doing so. Moreover, the arrests that accompanied the protests were apparently random and did not target elites or strategic opponents of the regime in the way that Erdogan did during the 2013 protests. The sorts of stories that both sides are telling about each other produce short-term gains that make people afraid of a potential boogey-man, who must be stopped at all costs, but ultimately weaken those who are telling the stories once it becomes clear that this is not what is actually happening.
On August 10th , we witnessed a failed attempt by PSD leader Liviu Dragnea to perpetrate a show of force in the style of Recep Erdogan, Dragnea’s political model. Why didn’t it work? Causes of failure include, first, and most important, the reaction of civil society which gathered in great numbers in many cities around the country, second, the fact the events that took place in Bucharest on August 10th made frontpage news and showed up on prime-time TV, and, third, the fact that Romania holds memberships in NATO and the EU, which together establish limits on public behavior and a set of obligatory democratic values. Without massive support from the West, coming from powerful EU and NATO states, a blow to the state simply cannot succeed in Bucharest. The external factor is decisive. The reaction of European chancelleries and ambassadors was powerful and immediate. Under pressure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt the need to make a declaration in which it rejected violence and assured the allies that Romania remains attached to western values—blahblahblah. And let’s not forget another aspect of the problem. On Friday, Piata Victoria was chock-full of EU and NATO member nations’ flags, together with the Romanian tricolor. The protesters’ attachments are very, very clear. They know which world they belong to and where and how they want to live. Attempts to drag Romania toward Ankara, Moscow, Minsk-style regimes will certainly be repelled. What did Dragnea want to do? It’s no secret that he wanted to claim even more power. He wanted to become—in even greater measure than he is today—the strong man of a regime of which he would be the boss. He wanted to take another step toward a personal dictatorship. To achieve his aim, he must destroy the last areas not under his control. He did not succeed this time, but next time remains an open question.
3/ Romania is in a profound crisis encompassing both politics and values. What are the causes of this crisis? Which forces confront each other? Where is Romania heading—toward Brussels or Istanbul (or eventually Moscow)? Do you see similarities with Poland and Hungary?
KIT GILLET Obviously, these are worrying times for many people in Romania – those hoping that Romania was on a straightforward if slow path to becoming a more liberal and prosperous Western democracy. When I first arrived in Romania, in 2013, it seemed that Romania was making solid progress in most key areas. However, this last year and a half has raised serious concerns, especially regarding the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. It is not surprising that there has been backlash against the actions of DNA, given the number of public officials who have been prosecuted, but the fact that the pushback has been so successful is obviously a worry for many Romanians. In the political arena, the lack of a strong opposition has given PSD the confidence to push forward with measures that are considered controversial. This has also further highlighted the divide between urban and rural areas. It would be hard to see Romania fully embracing the path of Turkey, Hungary, or even Poland, but it has definitely stuttered in its recent progress. Also, those in Romania pushing these changes have benefitted from the timing, with events in the US, Britain, not to mention Poland and Hungary, creating an environment where the international community is more distracted and divided than in the recent past.
I’m not sure that “crisis” is the right word, but the country certainly appears to be at a crossroads. Romania faces a choice about whether it wants to continue to live with the sort of institutionalized corruption that enriches a small group that’s connected to leading political networks and that blocks the distribution of European funds, prevents regional highways and airports, and squanders taxpayer resources. The alternative is to create an independent judiciary and watchdog institutions that prosecute fraud and white-collar crime irrespective of who commits it. Large numbers of people have taken to the streets in support of the latter option, but it is clear that they are not supported by the majority of the population. The same people who voted for PSD in 2016 would probably do so again if new elections were held tomorrow. And confidence in their electoral support emboldens corrupt elites as they take advantage of weak institutional controls.
There are increasingly influential Eurosceptic forces in Romania today. They would prefer a weakening of EU rules and procedures. They see Romania located on the periphery of the EU, in a Europe with several different speeds. They argue that Romania’s is incapable of keeping up with the hardcore EU nucleus. They say that the West is too dynamic and that Romania might not be able to adapt to its pace. This is how the skeptics explain both this country’s lagging behind and its incapacity to resolve its two greatest problems: backwardness and poverty. In reality, the problem resides in one part of the political class’s incapacity or unwillingness to accelerate the process of modernization and democratization. These people have no interest in anything like that happening, which for them would mean a loss of control. This anti-Westernizing force directs its efforts toward the realization of an authoritarian regime through which a minority that has enriched itself since 1989 (by means of state contracts) may control the impoverished majority of the population. The pro-Occidental camp is in the minority, for the time being, but it is active and tries to equalize the balance of forces. We should perhaps recall something else. Romanian society is profoundly divided and full of cleavages. First, there are the fractures between the rural and urban. Then there are gaps between generations, mentalities and very different levels of education. We must also mention the fractures between the historic provinces (Transylvania, Moldova, and the Romanian Lands), which have different levels of development. These provinces have not completely succeeded in fusing in the 100 years following the union of 1918. Moreover, we do not have a great democratic tradition, a fact that slows and limits the natural process of democratization and Europeanization of Romanian society. A large segment of the population would rather prefer an authoritarian-paternalistic regime, to the disfavor of a liberal democracy, which it considers chaotic and inefficient. The memory of Ceausescu persists in “deep Romania.” More than any time since 1989, Romania finds itself at a crossroads today.
4/Romania will assume the presidency of the European Union for six months, beginning on January 1, 1019. Do you think that Romania will be deemed capable of assuming the presidency in the context of the Social Democratic Party’s continued assault on the judicial system and the rule of law—as perceived by Brussels? Is there a risk that Brussels will withdraw the right to preside over the European Union for six months?
I doubt there has been any real discussions about taking the upcoming EU presidency away from Romania, even with the messages of concern that have come from Romania’s European allies since February 2017 regarding threats to the rule of law. I also don’t share the concerns that Romania might not be capable of assuming the rotating position. Bulgaria, which has experienced plenty of the same kinds of challenges, recently held the rotating presidency without incident.
Brussels could withdraw the presidency if key individuals in the Council of the European Union feel that they have something to gain by doing so, but I don’t see why they would want to. What with Brexit, Trump, and Putin undermining the liberal consensus that props it up, continuing economic problems in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and the resurgence of the radical right in Hungary, Poland, Austria, and France, the European Union is not having the best of years in 2018. If I were Brussels, the less I did to rock the boat the better. Moreover, international bodies of this nature seem remarkably tolerant when it comes to their leadership. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary held the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2015, for example, at a time when the regime was actively distorting the country’s involvement in the Holocaust. The bar for the presidency appears to be so low that Romania would have to do something pretty horrific to lose it at the moment
STELIAN TANASE I doubt that the government in Bucharest has the capacity to take over the EU Presidency on good terms starting in January 2019, nor do I think that Romania will be relieved of this task by Brussels. Rather, there will be a change of government (with PSD & ALDE in the majority) – made up of more credible figures at the European level.