This year in Romania, Halloween carried a solemn tone. My university students explained their own ambivalence toward celebrations. It was the anniversary of the fire that killed over 64 young people in a night club in Bucharest, the capital. The catastrophe could have been prevented were it not for bribes to government officials that allowed club owners to circumvent basic fire code rules. The revealed ethical bankruptcy of the Romanian state brought thousands of protesters into the streets, toppling the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) government led by Victor Ponta, who also happened to be facing multiple corruption charges. The renewed Romanian activism sparked hope that the tragedy would trigger a “silent and peaceful revolution” against “cancerous corruption.”
Replacing the PSD government, described by a Romanian friend as a “coalition of feudal barons,” was a broadly center-right, technocratic government led by Dacian Ciolos, a former EU agricultural commissioner with no political experience or party affiliation and minimal charisma. Despite many headaches, including the resignation of ten cabinet ministers and a scandal involving the state purchase of an allegedly overpriced Romanian sculpture, substantial reform emerged.
The government supported the aggressive work of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Led by the hardnosed lawyer Laura Kovesi, the DNA has emerged as a well-respected institution throughout Europe. In a symbolic victory, the Ciolos government curtailed the notorious practice where prisoners could reduce sentence times by publishing “scientific works,” prompting prolific, if highly questionable, writing by convicted politicians. On economic reform, the IMF labels Romania as the fastest growing economy in Europe for 2016 and 2017, at 5 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively. However, drastic spending increases and expanded deficits could threaten this stability, and Ciolos questioned the PSD’s more interventionist platforms as “unrealistic proposals that aim to get people’s attention and votes.”
Still, the December 11 election proved PSD correctly predicted the priorities of Romanian voters. The Social Democrats comfortably won 46 percent of the vote while the coalition of liberal parties supporting Ciolos, the Save Romania Union and the National Liberal Party, garnered 30 percent. “Of course, the [anticorruption] prosecutions should continue,” a Romanian voter tells the Financial Times. “But in the meantime – I need a pay raise. I have bills to pay.” PSD promises, including a minimum wage hike, larger pensions, and VAT cuts, sell well in the party’s heartland that includes Romania’s poorest and most rural regions.
“It is thus no surprise then, as Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky suggests, that for so many economically vulnerable Romanians, corruption could only be a top priority for a comfortable professional class; meeting immediate material needs takes precedence, even at the risk of moral compromise.”
A teaching colleague at Ovidius University of Constanta seeks out villages during her winter charity drive where children will only ask for a pair of shoes and a single orange for Christmas. Such communities sadly capture Romania’s competition with Bulgaria for last place among European Union countries in the United Nations’ Human Development Index and the Social Progress Index. It is thus no surprise then, as Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky suggests, that for so many economically vulnerable Romanians, corruption could only be a top priority for a comfortable professional class; meeting immediate material needs takes precedence, even at the risk of moral compromise.
PSD’s change of emphasis would be acceptable if there were not alarming signs that it may drastically slow Romania’s movement toward becoming a healthy liberal democracy. The sheer scale of PSD’s campaign promises looks unachievable, and likely failure may spark even greater disillusionment, especially among the young and ambitious already tempted to leave the country. (As it happens, there are more Romanian doctors in France than in Romania.) Romanian Social Democrats boldly championed Liviu Dragnea as the party leader, despite his conviction on charges of electoral fraud.
Although DNA has targeted offenders from across the political spectrum, opponents claim that the agency’s hidden goal is to “Destroy the PSD.” Romania Insider’s Andrei Chirilesa explains that party rhetoric labels the anticorruption prosecutions “a foreign effort to eliminate the local political elite in order to control the country more easily.” In a reminder of the absurdity of mapping Western European ideological lines onto Romania, PSD quietly aligned with former party leaders now operating on the far right who peddled claims that Ciolos and his allies are puppets of George Soros. The latter’s background as a Hungarian Jewish financial magnate makes for effective, if morally repulsive, political material given certain toxic nationalist undercurrents in Romanian life. Online stories claiming Ciolos was the bastard son of Soros, or that Soros orchestrated the Bucharest nightclub fire were widely circulated.
“For liberals in Eastern Europe there are many lessons yet to be learned. They must not allow values like the rule of law, clean government, and transparency feel abstract and removed for ordinary voters, especially the poorest.”
Coupled with illiberal turns in Poland and Hungary, the results in Romania are another setback for the Eastern Europe. One should not exaggerate the loss. The country’s president, Iohannis Klaus, won his office in 2014 on a liberal, anti-corruption platform and can use his executive authority over appointments and removal of judges and prosecutors to limit the new government. As author Robert Kaplan reveals in his book, In Europe’s Shadow, support for NATO and fear of Russian regional meddling is politically universal.
Eurobarometer polls reveal strong majorities attached to the European Union lying well above the bloc’s average. Even with PSD’s nationalist flirtations, no far-right populist party successfully entered Parliament. Romania’s present progress since 1989 has outlasted many mediocre governments. Nevertheless, Romania’s fight for genuine rule of law is facing an ominous setback. Without it, there is little hope for Romania to escape the middle-income trap.
For liberals in Eastern Europe there are many lessons yet to be learned. They must not allow values like the rule of law, clean government, and transparency feel abstract and removed for ordinary voters, especially the poorest. Similarly, they should avoid confusing impressive growth rates or development projects in national capitals with inclusive prosperity. Finally, they must recognize that defeating corruption takes the patient building of civil society, and not just universal reaction to the most atrocious nepotism.
During the Communist era, Romania endured arguably the most traumatic divorce from European life and civilization under the Iron Curtain’s shadow. Unless its more farsighted leaders take these steps, Romania’s full restoration into this community of nations will remain elusive.
Image: The famous Hunedoara Castle, one of Transylvania’s top tourist attractions. (Sbringser, Pixabay)
David Jimenez is an English Teaching Assistant in Romania for the Fulbright Program, where he teaches courses in English and American Studies at Ovidius University of Constanta for the academic year 2016–2017. He is a 2016 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he completed his BA in history. His WordPress blog, “‘Polar Bear in the Balkans,” features his writing on both travel and ideas.