Florin Poenaru: Romanian protests: A cake with three layers (and a cherry on top)

In the past four weeks, Romania has witnessed some of the biggest protests in the post-communist era. Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the country took to the streets to protest a government bill that would potentially decriminalize corruption offenses and therefore help the case of the ruling Social Democratic Party leader. Hence, at home and in the international press, the protests were framed as a struggle between the corrupt government and the people pushing for anticorruption and for the respect of the rule of law. By virtue of this collective and spontaneous reaction against a government decree, the Romanian protests were cherished as a “beacon of hope” for democracy tout court. This was quite a staggering achievement: Romania was simultaneously portrayed as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe and as a silver lining for the world. It encapsulates the massively contradictory character of the protests that, despite the catchphrases and punch lines of the media, cannot be conveniently reduced to a single narrative or to a clear-cut conflict. I will try to articulate here the complexities of these protests via a metaphor: a cake with three layers and a cherry on top. Can the Romanians have their cake and eat it too?

Sponge: The protests

The immediate reason took people to the streets was the government’s decision to pass an urgency decree in order to make some changes to the Penal Code. One of the most controversial involved the decriminalization of the abuse of office and other related misconducts. Many profiled politicians were expected to benefit as a result, either by having charges against them dropped or by facing shorter sentences, including the head of the Social Democratic Party, currently in power. He is being prosecuted for instigation to abuse of office, and his trial is pending. He already served a suspended sentence for violating electoral legislation. Any other sentence would immediately mean jail time for him and the end of his political career. What compounded this string of suspicions was the manner the decree was passed: close to midnight, without prior public debate. People took to the streets as a result and demanded the cancellation of the decree and the resignation of the justice minister. Both demands were met in the end, and the protests winded down before coming to an end.

Protests in Romania, 1 February 2017 (© Paul Arne Wagner Follow via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Protests in Romania, 1 February 2017 (© Paul Arne Wagner via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The protests were not only huge but also immensely successful. This has become a pattern in Romanian politics in the past half decade. In 2012, protests against austerity measures brought the government down, and in 2013 mass demonstrations against an open-cast mine exploitation in Roșia Montană halted the project. Following a 2015 tragedy that killed 64 people in a rock club in Bucharest, angry protesters successfully forced the prime minister to resign. Street mobilization is increasingly becoming an important factor in Romanian politics. Cherished in many corners as a distinct sign of civic involvement and healthy democratic reflexes after years of apathy during the transition and in a world context of rising right-wing illiberalism, the protests had a sui generis character. They were leaderless, they had no immediate political character beyond rejecting corruption and impunity, they did not support political parties or figures, and they were indeed very creative and spectacular.

At the same time they were very ambiguous. By equating the Social Democrats with the “red plague,” the protesters revived an old trope of Romanian interwar fascism. The display of national flags raised the specter of nationalism. In addition, the uncanny alliance between corporate workers and their foreign bosses, shouting together against the government and the Social Democrats, offered a distinct note to the February protests. Therefore, there was clearly more to these protests than a simple opposition to a governmental decree.

That decree was merely the pretext. What took people to the streets was a belated response from the urban corporate middle classes to the landslide victory of the Social Democrats in the most recent parliamentary elections. Hence, the protests also articulated a form of contempt and discontent toward not only the Social Democrats but also their voters—perceived to be poorer, ill-informed, from the rural areas, or from the smaller cities. The street demonstrations were therefore also a form of expressing dissatisfaction with the results of the 2016 elections. To put it differently, protesters were angry that their political option cannot take a recognizable political form. Why? While the protests were against the government and the ruling party, they were not supporting an alternative political party or figure. The demonstrators were cheering for the National Directorate of Anticorruption (DNA) to continue its work of putting politicians in jail. It was a massive public support for the branch of the judicial system in charge of fighting corruption—but one that cannot be voted for. Therefore, the protesters were demanding the overthrow of the government in order to let the anticorruption institution work unchecked. As such, while the protests were apolitical (in the sense of not supporting a particular party or leader), they nonetheless revealed the deeply political character of the anticorruption struggle.

Custard: Antinomies of anticorruption

One significant development that overlapped with the protests remained largely unnoticed. The DNA opened a penal investigation against the government for issuing the aforementioned decree. This is unprecedented: the act of governing being subjected to penal scrutiny by a segment of the judicial system in the name of anticorruption. It is not only a breach of the bourgeois liberal democratic framework of the balance of power. It is tantamount to acquiring full discretionary power by one of the state apparatuses.

One of the preconditions of Romania’s Europe Union accession was to curb corruption vigorously, considered its defining feature. A surveillance mechanism was put in place in order to measure progress on this front. During former President Traian Basescu’s 10-year time in office, anticorruption became the main state policy and a matter of national security. Corrupt politicians became the main target of the anticorruption campaign while at the same time the judicial institutions in charge of anticorruption were insulated and became autonomous—not unlike Brazil or Italy. Political oversight was considered a form of unduly interference in the process since the main targets of the campaign were always supposed to be politicians. As a result, the control of the judiciary was transferred to the president, the Parliament was eviscerated, and many of its members were put to trial, while the power of the secret intelligence agency grew as its role in the anticorruption campaign became more central. This created a misbalance in the functioning of the state institutions and led to a split within the state between the government and the Parliament on the one hand (as the institutions populated by corrupt politicians) and the president, the judicial, and the surveillance institutions on the other. The results of the latest parliamentary elections compounded the problem by leading to an overt chasm between the Social Democrats (who won a comfortable parliamentary majority and thus formed the government) and the current president who was elected in 2014 with the Liberals’ support based on the promise to intensify the fight against corruption. The issuing of the decree by the Social Democrats explosively magnified this rift, which the president exploited in his favor by siding with the street supporters. The result was a further split within the two branches of the executive that now threaten the very functioning of the state mechanisms.

This is the insoluble paradox: the president aligned with the street and the anticorruption institutions portrayed himself as the main oppositional figure to the Social Democrats, considered the very embodiment of the idea of corrupt politicians—of corruption itself. This makes sense from an electoral point of view since he seeks reelection, but it is damaging to the fragile democratic setting itself. By choosing to play this role, the president oversteps his constitutional role and positions himself in opposition not just to the Social Democrats but also to the government and the Parliament as institutions. This maximalist reinterpretation of the presidential powers is nothing short than a soft coup d’etat orchestrated by the president in the name of anticorruption and with the help of the latter’s constellation of institutions, inadvertently backed by the impressive popular mobilization.

Such an outcome was long in the making and not the immediate result of these protests. It is in fact one of the unexpected consequences of the anticorruption struggle of the past decade. Anticorruption has been a very destabilizing factor within Romanian politics. By targeting only corrupt politicians, it dialed down on the powers of Parliament and cut to the bone the leadership of the mainstream parties. More than this, anticorruption managed to compromise politics itself—a realm already considered murky, sinful, and populated by venal characters. To put it shortly, politics itself became a synonym for corruption. The technocratic government that replaced the more political one led by Victor Ponta, a former head of the Social Democrats, in 2015, bespoke this tendency to replace politics with technocracy in order to avoid corruption.

Furthermore, the debasing of politicians and politics proper invite forms of direct expression, such as the street protests that cancel out the need for elections and formal representation. Moreover, anticorruption strategies lead to the creation of a “new class” of professionals: judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and their allies (the police, the secret intelligence, etc.) formally outside of the political game (and unelected), though their actions have a deeply political result.

In addition, through its narrow focus on local politicians, anticorruption exonerated big business and corporations and their corruption practices. Anticorruption files have focused exclusively on the receiving end of the corruption process and never on the entire chain. This raised the question of the inherent limits of the anticorruption campaign: is anticorruption possible (or effective) only in relation to local politicians (and their allies in the state bureaucracy), or is it possible to envisage anticorruption as a strategy in relation to the corruption of and by capital? So far, this has not at all been the case. What is more, the focus of anticorruption was even narrower. By failing to expropriate illicit fortunes made during “the transition,” and to realize a modicum of social justice, the anticorruption campaign never garnered genuine popular support. This was evident in the 2016 local elections when mayors under corruption charges comfortably won new mandates in their constituencies.

Undoubtedly, then, anticorruption is a very politicized and very partial mechanism within the state apparatuses that affects the balance of power between the branches of the government, but it is not a majoritarian-popular theme. The idea suggested by the urban protesters that there is an “us” (the people) against “them” (the corrupt politicians) functioned as a strong mobilizing mechanism, but it was far from describing the real social conflict.

Fudge: Class politics

As usual, what really lurks in the background is class. The Social Democrats increased the minimum wage and pensions, cut taxes for the poorest segments, and increased, even though just slightly compared to the needs, social welfare spending. They will need to balance out these measures by rethinking taxation, especially by scrapping the flat tax and by taxing the richer segments and the corporate income. Faced with such prospects, it is not at all surprising that corporate workers, especially their bosses, were on the streets to protest. Allegedly, people in Bucharest’s corporations were offered free days off work to stay up at night and protest the government. McDonald’s offered free tea to protesters to stay warm and rehydrate, just as several other companies chipped in to help the protests. The local head of Raiffeisen Bank, accused of cheating tens of thousands of Romanians by hiding abusive clauses in their contracts, brought his family to the protests. Journalists and other media pundits, who in the past already decried the social measures of the government as reckless spending, tuned in and added their messages against the government. Little wonder in this context that the protests quickly moved from a specific demand regarding the decree, to the resignation of the newly appointed government as a whole.

It would be very simplistic—as some observers did—to note here a class conflict between the urban middle classes and the poorer strata that traditionally vote for the Social Democrats. It is more complicated than that. The poorest segments of society are in no way represented in this conflict. This is so because the social base of the Social Democrats nowadays is formed by the provincial petite bourgeoisie, the lower echelons of the salaried cadres, the lower and middle strata of the state bureaucracy, and whatever is left of the local capitalist class. These segments of class are predominantly based in small and medium cities, have their interests aligned with both the Social Democrats and the state institutions at the local level, and see little benefit from, if not a direct hindrance in, the anticorruption struggle. They are the direct beneficiaries of the Social Democrats’ program of increasing minimum wages and cutting taxes for the middle incomes.

At the opposite end, the corporate workers in the bigger cities and the class segments dependent on transnational capital see the Social Democrats and their social basis as their main enemies. This is rightly so, since the Social Democrats came to power with an explicit plan to tilt the balance of power (both political and economic) in favor of the former, after years in which the main beneficiaries of Romania’s transition-capitalism had been exclusively the latter.

The anticorruption struggle is only a political ploy within this wider class antagonism. For example, one of the immediate discursive outcomes of this collusion between class and anticorruption was the universal equation of social programs with corruption. Whenever the Social Democrats increase pensions, salaries, or other social expenditures, this is considered a direct form of bribing their electoral base—nothing else. It is even seen as a form of moral corruption that inevitably must perpetuate the poverty of their supporters, as in the classic dependency syndrome of the neoliberal imagination. Corruption leads to poverty, which in turn breeds more corruption. This ideological construction not only justifies the war on the poor but also rationalizes cuts in state expenditures as forms of anticorruption. As such, anticorruption remains firmly aligned with the postsocialist politics of privatization that repeatedly state spending must always be perverse, both under socialism and after socialism.

The cherry: Geopolitics

This angle was surprisingly absent from both domestic and international reports about the Romanian protests. There is an uncanny similarity between the protests in the United States against President Donald Trump’s tenure and the ones in Romania—toute proportion gardée. Even the slogans are the same: #resist. This might explain to a certain extent the exposure Romanian protests enjoyed in the US press, which was rare. In turn, this exposure helped to magnify the importance of the protests at home, amplify its symbolic message, and swell the numbers.

The leader of the Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, the person the governmental decree was supposed to help, was one of the few leaders who attended Trump’s inauguration events—not as an official but after paying a fee rumored to be around $1 million. However, what was supposed to be a PR masterstroke turned out to be only a good source for Facebook jokes and memes.

This should not obscure the fact that Dragnea seeks to brand himself as a Trump ally in the region and to borrow his style. This political orientation is natural for two reasons. With the current Romanian president being openly backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany, pivoting toward the United States might offer some political clout in the local political struggle discussed above. Also, the Social Democrat’s ideological orientation and social base is very similar to Trump’s in the United States. Moreover, it is very close to other Trump allies in Europe such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—albeit Orbán’s and Dragnea’s respective nationalisms prevent them from developing closer ties. Under Dragnea’s leadership (though the process was underway before), the Social Democrats firmly moved to conservative and even extreme-right positions in terms of cultural and social issues. The Social Democrats seek to ban same-sex marriage and encourage the traditional family. They imprinted a nationalistic direction on the Ministry of Culture and publicly supported all sorts of mysticisms, conspiracy theories, and fake news. Dragnea declared his own war on billionaire philanthropist George Soros by arguing that his money and foundations rallied the people in the streets.

Romania has always been a staunch US ally in the region. But this turn toward the Trump administration promises to have unforeseen consequences for local politics. At least, the Social Democrats hope it will ease the onus on anticorruption and allow them instead to focus on development and on rebuilding Romania—which is their main political platform. Everything hinges, of course, on the nature of the Trump-Putin relationship in the medium and long run, and its impact on the region. If this relationship goes well, it will be for the first time after the end of the Cold War when the strategic partnership with the United States will not immediately be against Russia. The Social Democrats might reap the benefits of this relationship should it go well, or they might be obliterated by the turbulences of the geopolitical context, just as Viktor Ianukovich’s Party of the Regions became the casualty of the politics in the region. So far, the Social Democrats warmed up to Trump but kept a cold distance to Russia and continued to embrace Brussels after they won the election. Irrespective of the direction of this geopolitical struggle, it cuts through the heart of Romanian state institutions and their internal struggle—just as it does for other countries in the region and in the Balkans (Serbia, Bulgaria, and Moldova).

In some reports, the Romanian protests were depicted as the new Ukrainian Maidan. In fact, they were closer to the Bulgarian anticorruption and pro-EU protests in the summer of 2013. What was distinctly Romanian in this case, however, was that the push for anticorruption as the key symbol of the political imagination might lead to a sharpening of its inherent contradictions. The protests offered more leeway and popular support to the anticorruption institutions that will only accelerate their autonomization from political and constitutional scrutiny. Celebrated around the world as a success story, the Romanian anticorruption campaign might be a sui generis contribution to the growing instances of right wing illiberalism in the region and in the world.

Florin Poenaruis an anthropologist and co-editor of CriticAtac, a Romanian left-wing platform. He works on issues of class and post-communism.

Cite as: Poenaru, Florn. 2017. “Romanian protests: A cake with three layers (and a cherry on top).” FocaalBlog, 27 February. www.focaalblog.com/2017/02/27/florin-poenaru-romanian-protests-a-cake-with-three-layers-and-a-cherry-on-top.