Romania’s “White Revolution”

A version of this article first appeared on the blog, Romericanjourney.

And on the 13th day, there was light: 70,000 protesters lit up Piata Victoriei (Victoriei Square) in Bucharest on the evening of February 12 in an unforgettable display of red, yellow, and blue. The tricolor projected by the lights coming from thousands of individual cellphones evoked two clear messages: that the lifeblood of a democracy is the will of its people, and that Romania is finally shining a light into the dark corridors of its government’s endemic corruption.

Romania’s “White Revolution” has come 27 years after the fall of Communism.

The widespread protests erupted on the evening of January 31, when the government attempted to pass an incendiary emergency executive ordinance (OUG 13) that would have decriminalized various forms of corruption, presuming no one would take notice. Such a move was not without precedent: for almost three decades, Romanian politicians have often slipped through depraved decrees with the reassurance that an apathetic populace resigned to its fate under crooked rule would not bother to read the terms.

The previous law regarding abuse-of-power cases was unconstitutional and required amendment. However, the terms of the new ordinance (OUG 13) decriminalized abuse of power up to the value of 200.000 lei ($48,000). Moreover, dozens of politicians, many from the ruling party, would stand to gain from the proposed clemency and measures of leniency, particularly PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea, who faces corruption charges for defrauding the state of 24.000€ ($26,000). The ordinance’s clemency proposal was conveniently worded so that, should the decree have entered into effect, even for one second, it would have eliminated their pending cases and effectively wiped their records clean.

This isn’t just a mere obstruction of justice; it is a complete disregard and perversion of the very concept of justice in the Romanian legal framework.

In a movement that drew over half a million protestors at its peak on the evening of February 5, Romanians have taken to the streets for over twenty consecutive days despite rain, snow, and frigid temperatures nationwide. Evoking memories of Romania’s 1989 revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship, the spirit of the past two weeks has been one of righteous indignation and optimism, filled with emotional moments of crowds singing the national anthem in city squares and parents protesting with their children alongside them or on their shoulders.

“Evoking memories of Romania’s 1989 revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship, the spirit of the past two weeks has been one of righteous indignation and optimism.”

The prevailing hope is that the younger generation is now rising to carry out the unfinished business of the 1989 revolution. “I was there when the miners came [to violently topple the protests] in 1990. After so many years, my hope is that this is the end of the cycle: that what we started then, our youth will now finish,” declared a protester in Piata Victoriei on February 12.

Indeed, protests have a temporal immediacy in Romania’s national memory: in the fall of 2015, smaller protests broke out in the wake of the Colectiv club fire in Bucharest that resulted in the death of 64 individuals. The protests then, like the ones now, decried the government’s corruption and led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who besides plagiarizing his doctoral thesis, faced charges of tax evasion, money laundering, conflict of interest, and forgery.

So far, the protests have at best succeeded at slowing the ordinance’s passage and bringing about the resignation of Minister of Justice Florin Iordache, who was one of the ordinance’s co-architects. Though Ana Birchall has been named interim minister, there has been talk about the probability of Victor Ponta being designated the next minister of justice. While the current Prime Minister of Labor Olguta Vasilescu mentioned this possibility, Victor Ponta has declared he has no intention of taking the job (“last time I was Minister of Justice, I made nothing but mistakes,” he stated), nor has anyone actually proposed the position to him.

In an effort to halt the ordinance, the government introduced OUG 14 to repeal the corrupt OUG 13. However, it still remained possible for the decree to enter into effect: Ordinance 14,which passed through the Senate and Chamber of Deputies earlier last week, was challenged in the Court of Appeals in Bucharest, as it appeared to have some elements that may not be constitutional. Thus, while the protests continued, it remained possible that the highly protested OUG 13 could still enter into effect. Finally, on February 22, the ordinance was officially repealed by the adoption of OUG 14 in the Chamber of Deputies.

In the wake of judicial indifference and procedural lethargy, protests had continued: “On any night, we can wake up to find that some infraction has been decriminalized,” a protester decried. “We want to work, not to supervise [the government].” Upon hearing the news of OUG 13’s repeal, protesters cheered “This is the first victory,” signaling their intent to continue to push for reform.

The Romanian diaspora, which numbers around 4–6  million, has also demonstrated its solidarity in the call for justice, turning out varying numbers of protestors throughout Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The rallying of the Romanian diaspora also played a significant role in the election of pro-EU President Klaus Iohannis of the National Liberal Party (PNL), as the turnout of the Romanian diaspora numbered about 379,000 voters in Europe alone, paving the way for Iohannis’ triumph over Victor Ponta in November 2014.

President Iohannis has remained firm on his campaign promises to tackle corruption and strengthen the independence of the judicial system; in a move widely condemned by the left, he even joined the protests on the first evening and called the measures an offense to justice. President Klaus Iohannis made an impassioned speech before the government last week, declaring, “You have been elected, now you govern. But with transparency and morals.” The PSD party collectively walked out in disdain in the middle of his speech.

Amid domestic and international protests, Liviu Dragnea and Calin Tariceanu, the leadership of the PSD-ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) coalition, had exploited  every possible means of evading OUG 13’s repeal. They embarked on a disinformation campaign to detract from their wrongdoing, framing the debacle as a political and ad hominem issue, rather than a moral one. They labeled  the protesters “Iohannists” who are being financed by billionaire George Soros and manipulated by President Iohannis himself, who they claim seeks a hostile takeover (or systemic destabilization) of their democratically elected government.

The National Directorate for Anti-Corruption (DNA), led by chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi, is currently investigating over 2,000 abuse-of-power cases. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition speaks of the entrenching power of the DNA and claims it is overstepping its boundaries as an institution and threatening their democratic rule. On local news channels, PSD party leaders accuse Laura Kovesi of denigrating Romania’s reputation on the international stage for expressing her worries about the recent events.

Only begrudgingly had they agreed to withdraw the ordinance and propose OUG 14. Liviu Dragnea ardently opposed withdrawing the ordinance during the first few days of the protest, declaring the government’s action legal.

Throughout the day on February 5, Liviu Dragnea repeatedly threatened on Romania TV to stage a PSD counter-protest with “those people who weren’t manipulated by Iohannis,” which brought out 2,500 sympathetic protesters in front of Cotroceni Palace, the president’s residence. A majority of these protestors were senior citizens who hold on to the PSD government’s promises to raise their pensions.

Meanwhile, Liviu Dragnea continues his charade to emerge on top, asserting his innocence and attempting to brush the mess of recent events under the rug, offhandedly dismissing reporters’ probing questions into whether the events have affected the ongoing case for his abuse in service, which has been postponed at numerous stages in the past two weeks. The French newspaper Le Monde has termed him “the face of Romanian corruption,” perhaps with good cause: When asked about Romania’s anticorruption fight in an interview with Swiss media on December 12 following PSD’s parliamentary victory,  he replied: “I want to talk about Romania’s future, not about this bullshit.”

Cronyism and nepotism run rampant in the Romanian political system, and the PSD party seemed willing to destabilize Romania’s government and sacrifice its international stature for the sake of bailing out its cronies. However, the debacle has produced an internal generational conflict of sorts within the PSD party, as several party leaders, such as Secretary of State Florin-Daniel Sandru, Deputy Aurelia Cristea, and Valentin Cristian Lupşa, and Euro-parliamentarian Sorin Moisa resigned in the wake of the ordinance’s proposal. “There comes a time when silence becomes guilty,” said Sorin Moisa in his statement of resignation.

“This isn’t necessarily a war against a particular party, but against a corrupt ruling class of kleptocrats that has left the Romanian people demoralized and disillusioned with their current democracy.”

Vice president of the PSD party, Mihai Chirica, has been an ardent voice for accountability and reform within the party. He immediately called for the resignation of Minister of Justice Florin Iordache for his incompetence and role in fabricating the ordinance. Chirica also criticized Liviu Dragnea, stating: “We need a new leadership, a change in management: leadership with an iron fist no longer has a place in Romania’s democracy.”

Likewise, PSD Euro-parliamentarian Catalin Ivan openly declared his sympathy with the protesters, rebuking Iordache for his “secretomania,” declaring that the fight against corruption must continue and that the government should not take furtive initiatives without public debate. In addition, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has conceded that “The government needs to consult with the people, listen to the people, and act transparently.” Moreover, a leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL) stated: “The problems did not stem from Sorin Grindeanu, but from his party leader with a criminal file. However, Grindeanu has lost a lot of credibility by placing the interests of Liviu Dragnea above his responsibility to govern transparently.

While some political analysts have stated that the PSD party does not represent a continuation of Romania’s future (especially due to its ties to the former Communist party), a majority of the protestors support the legitimacy of the elected government. Nonetheless, voices on the street claim they don’t believe the government’s consent to repeal the ordinance and call for Prime Minister Grindeanu’s resignation.

This isn’t necessarily a war against a particular party, but against a corrupt ruling class of kleptocrats that has left the Romanian people demoralized and disillusioned with their current democracy. Since its revolution, Romania’s attempts at reform have been all but blocked by the stubborn inertia of  leaders who fear a loss of power at the expense of reform. The protesters aren’t necessarily calling for new elections. Most individuals accept the PSD victory of December 12. However, they are calling for new PSD party leadershipa clean slate in the purest sense, not cleared criminal records. Protesters laid out banners in Piata Victoriei citing: “We respect the vote. We ask for a new, competent, and clean government.”

Romania’s government has faced numerous reprimands from its Western allies, who warn that backtracking on corruption and disregarding European values undermines its position in both the EU and NATO, and places Romania at risk of losing EU funds and its right to vote in the EU. European Commission President Juncker and First Vice President Timmermans declared: “The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.” The most scathing reproach has come from the noted Eurosceptic, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom, who stated: “It’s unbelievable that we are in a political union with a country like Romania. They should have never been allowed to join [the EU].”

Meanwhile, the resistance of Romania’s protesters has become a beacon of hope in the fight against corruption for southeastern Europe (particularly Bulgaria and Italy). As the fate of OUG 13, and consequently, Romania’s sense of justice, hung in the balance, it has become clear that the Romanian citizenry’s social consciousness has been definitively awakened. As President Iohannis asserted: “The nation is alert. It is alive. And it is very unsatisfied.” The Romanian electorate will most likely face a referendum proposed by the president in March regarding the fight against corruption.

While it is difficult to say whether this “White Revolution” will ultimately succeed in ousting the PSD government, reshuffling those in government, or ensuring demands for transparency, a certain democratic transformation has emerged. A populace that feels disillusioned, disrespected, mistreated, and tired of the manipulative exploits of its media has mounted a protest of resistance.

Romania remains no less stable in the wake of its protests, which have been largely peaceful. However, a blow to the rule of law would obliterate its legitimacy. In an interview with Realitatea TV, Robert Schwartz of Deutsche Welle attested: “It is not our country that is in danger, but rather our democracy.” This is not just about the repeal of an ordinance, but about the evolution of a society that demands an end to deceit and populism. It is not  just about an ordinance written on a piece of paper, but about the country’s collective consciousness, about Romania’s future as a nation.

Thousands of Romanians have taken to the streets and lit up the nation’s soul in defense of democracy, the rule of law, justice, and a society based on moral values and accountability. Hopefully,  they will remain alert and deepen their civic engagement to root out corruption at all levels, so that in the wake of this “White Revolution,” “No one will ever be able to govern in the dark again.”

Image: Protesters gather in Craiova, Romania on February 5, 2017. (Albert Dobrin, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Damaris Bangean is a graduate of Chapman University, where she completed a B.A. in political science and a B.S. in business administration in 2016. She is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at the University of Oradea in Romania, where she teaches English Communication courses at the Faculty of Letters. In the fall of 2017, she will be entering the master’s program in international economic policy at Sciences Po in Paris.

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