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Despite the apathy and fatalism that have traditionally characterized Romanian citizens, civic mobilization has increased significantly in Romania since 2012, culminating with massive anticorruption protests from 2017 to 2019. Several mass mobilizations have thus taken place over the past few years, mainly in response to government measures perceived to undermine the fight against corruption and privilege certain public officials.

Such large protests have grown in size and have diversified the repertoires used by civic activists, based on a steep learning curve and a global diffusion of protest tactics. From one protest to another, citizens learned about the powerful democratic tools at their disposal and understood their own effectiveness. Moreover, the number of protesters increased significantly from a few thousand in 2012 to several hundred thousand people, reaching a peak of 600,000 protesters in February 2017.1 This dramatic rise shows that civic mobilization and civil society have become increasingly influential factors on the Romanian political scene. Even though many activists did not remain active after key protests, others have found a way to maintain a capacity either to mobilize or to engage in mainstream politics.

Timeline of Mass Mobilizations

The wave of civil-society-led mobilizations in Romania began in 2012, with demonstrations against the government’s proposal to privatize the Medical Emergency Intervention Service (Serviciul Mobil de Urgențǎ, Reanimare și Descarcerare, SMURD), a specialized emergency service capable of treating and transporting serious cases. When then president Traian Băsescu subsequently dismissed the highly regarded health state secretary Dr. Raed Arafat, the founder of SMURD, popular opinion regarded the president’s actions as unjust and discretionary. The direct result of the protests was the fall of the incumbent government of prime minister Emil Boc.

In September 2013, the government’s approval of a draft law that would allow the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation to build Europe’s largest open-cast gold mine in the small town of Roșia Montană triggered large mobilizations that lasted more than a month. Protesters demonstrated not only against the mining project but also against the political establishment and the alleged corruption of public officials linked with the project. The direct result of the protests was the Romanian Parliament’s rejection of the mining law in November 2013.

Cristina Buzasu
Cristina Buzasu is a policy and strategy expert with more than ten years of professional experience in international organizations.

On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out in the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv, killing sixty-five people and injuring almost 150. This tragedy was blamed on the corruption of public officials, who had failed to undertake proper safety checks at several nightclubs and triggered the largest protests the country had witnessed hitherto. This protest episode led to the resignation of the incumbent prime minister Victor Ponta, which in turn de-escalated the mass mobilization.

In the aftermath of the Colectiv protests, former European commissioner Dacian Cioloș was appointed by parliamentary consensus to head a technocrat government for a year, until the end of 2016. In December 2016, the country’s general elections were won, with an overwhelming majority, by the Social Democratic Party (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD). The PSD and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alianța Liberalilor și Democraților, ALDE) formed a center-left government, headed by Sorin Grindeanu. On January 31, 2017, shortly after the government was formed, the Ministry of Justice unexpectedly passed an ordinance bill (Government Ordinance 13) decriminalizing government corruption and abuse of office below a certain threshold. Right after the ordinance was adopted late in the evening, several thousand protesters took to the streets.

The demonstrations continued daily and reached their peak on February 5, 2017, when almost 600,000 people protested in many cities across the country and abroad. Even though the government repealed the controversial bill a few days later, protesters remained in the streets, further castigating the ruling coalition over its declared attempts to pass similar legislation through parliament, as well as subsequently proposed ordinances aimed at amending the justice laws. The protests of early 2017 were the largest protests in Romania’s postcommunist history.

Thus, in the Romanian case, one can distinguish between several cycles of protests. Each protest cycle influenced and fed into the ones that followed, generating what could be referred to as “activist capital.” From this point of view, each protest can be regarded as an episode in a broader series of citizenship identity formation and peaceful regaining of public spaces, public policy, and ultimately political involvement. Such protests can die down and reappear again and turn on and off several times over a long period.

The recurring theme of the Romanian protests has been anticorruption. Thus, the demonstrations also could be regarded as an expression of the citizens’ stance against corruption and poor governance, which is perceived to be eroding Romania’s fragile democracy and market economy.

Regarding the profile of the activists, they were predominantly made up of young urban elites, relatively well off and highly educated, who were joined by people from diverse social and economic backgrounds, including private sector professionals, teachers, artists, and even some elderly people. These demonstrators could be associated with a growing Romanian middle class, demanding that its rights be respected and its voice be heard. Their motivation for participating in street protests was linked to a deep frustration with the entire political establishment. As such, activists wished to differentiate themselves from this establishment and reject the type of hierarchical, leader-centered structure associated with it.

The mass mobilizations also indicate a growing alienation of Romanian citizens from the incumbent political parties and, in particular, PSD and ALDE. The public largely perceives these political parties as self-serving and incompetent, as well as generally corrupt. Consequently, the parties’ credibility is at one of the lowest points since the fall of the communist regime. Although such sentiments toward political parties are not uncommon throughout Central and Eastern Europe,2 in Romania, the country’s populist and nationalist tendencies come mainly from the left wing of the political spectrum. In this regard, the PSD, as the successor of the former communist party, promotes what could be termed as “left-wing conservatism”—in which socially conservative, religiously dogmatic, and nationalistic doctrines are accompanied by redistributive economic policies.

Considering the political associations of nationalist and populist movements in other countries, the Romanian case might seem counterintuitive. However, it must be pointed out that the center-right parties in Romania—which include the National Liberal Party (Partidul Național Liberal, PNL), Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvați România, USR), and Freedom, Unity, and Solidarity Party (Partidul Libertății, Unității și Solidarității, PLUS)—are all moderate and act as a progressive, modernizing, and pro-European force in the country. Despite a slight dip in pro-European sentiment (related to the recent anti–European Union rhetoric of the ruling PSD party), the Romanian electorate is still very pro-European, and so right-wing nationalism and populism does not have the same appeal it has in many of Romania’s European neighbors. The results of the European Parliament elections, which were overwhelmingly won by the pro-European opposition parties, are telling in that regard.

Typology of Pathways

After the mass protests in the winter of 2017, Romanian activists opted for various pathways. The majority of protesters decided to lie low, mainly waiting for new opportunities of mass mobilization triggered by major political events, without much of a “between protests” strategy. In this regard, many civic activists claimed that the protest movement has lost steam since 2017.

One major contributing factor was the governing party’s tactic of conducting a “trench war” of small steps aimed at gradually dismantling the country’s existing anticorruption legislation. One particular casualty was the internationally praised National Anticorruption Directorate (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie, DNA), whose head, Laura Codruța Kövesi, was dismissed in July 2018. The government’s strategy seems to have worn down the protesters. Although discontent continues to brew among a large number of citizens, they seem to be waiting for a decisive moment to participate in another mass mobilization.

Nevertheless, despite a certain degree of disappointment, some groups of civic activists adopted new forms of organization and resistance, with the objective of consolidating civic culture and leading to a genuine institutionalization of activism across the country. This trend occurred mostly in large cities such as Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, and Timișoara. The activist networks organized several campaigns aimed at mobilizing citizens and promoting their participation in decisionmaking, especially at the local level. The use of online resources greatly facilitated this task, allowing them to overcome many logistical obstacles.

Several successful civic platforms have consolidated their structures and expanded their activities following the 2017 mass protests. These platforms were generally set up in the aftermath of the fire at the Colectiv nightclub. After the 2017 protests triggered by Government Ordinance 13, these civic platforms grew significantly in size (in terms of number of members and supporters) and positioned themselves to take on the role of catalysts for further street protests.

For instance, Corruption Kills (Coruptia Ucide) is a civic network focused on fighting corruption. It was created following the Colectiv tragedy, which was linked to corruption in the public administration. The organization’s campaigns have helped end the decriminalization of corruption cases and have uncovered fraud and embezzlement cases in Romania. Its founder, Florin Badita, was named as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Europe (Law and Policy section), as well as European Personality of the Year in 2018. The Corruption Kills Facebook page has become a national phenomenon. Aimed at facilitating the organization of civic campaigns and protests, it has gained more than 100,000 followers. The civic network has also started an educational project, a civic entrepreneurship incubator known as Civic Starter, and the Activist’s House, a space for knowledge sharing among civic activists.

Another successful civic platform created in the days of civic mobilization that followed the Colectiv tragedy is Initiative Romania (Inițiativa România). It was founded by a small group of activists in November 2015, with the objective of attracting citizens who shared the same values of integrity, competence, accountability, and respect for the rule of law. Initiative Romania soon was joined by hundreds of like-minded activists, with the declared mission of helping to create a new political class meant to represent voters’ interests in a competent and ethical manner.

Apart from these civic platforms, new forms of resistance also materialized under the umbrella of viral hashtags such as #rezist (resist), #toti_pentru_justitie (all for justice), and, most recently, #si_eu (me too), a local movement advocating against corruption and the country’s poor infrastructure. These hashtags triggered new and ingenious types of protests also revolving around the issues of justice, anticorruption, and good governance, including in the area of healthcare and public infrastructure.

These protest hashtags and civic networks, together with Romanian diaspora organizations, were instrumental in organizing a new series of large-scale mobilizations in Romania. After February 2017, the next mass mobilization took place on January 20, 2018, when close to 100,000 people gathered to protest against the government’s proposed changes to the penal code and the justice laws.3

Following the January protests, smaller demonstrations occurred almost on a daily basis, until another large-scale protest was organized on August 10, 2018, by diaspora civic associations. The Romanian diaspora is very influential from an economic and political point of view, and it has strong ties to the country, particularly family members. It is also the most important investor in Romania, bringing in about 2 billion euros annually.4 With almost 4 million Romanians living abroad, the diaspora accounts for more than 20 percent of the country’s population.5 Thus, Romania has the fastest growth rate of the number of emigrants among nonconflict countries.6

The August 10 protest was aimed at encouraging diaspora members who were spending their summer holidays in Romania to protest against the government’s passing of the new justice bills and the dismissal of DNA’s head, Kövesi. Under the slogan “Diaspora at Home,” the protesters demanded the resignation of the government and the elimination of corruption. The mass demonstration led to clashes between the protesters and the police marked by unprecedented violence. As shown by the subsequent investigation and partial declassification of secret files, the violent intervention of the gendarmerie against the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters was orchestrated by then interior minister Carmen Dan under the direction of the PSD and then president of the Chamber of Deputies Liviu Dragnea.7

From the ranks of the civic-minded activists who organized new forms of collective action and resistance, a third group of protesters emerged onto the mainstream Romanian political scene. Several new political parties were formed, the most prominent of which were the center-right USR and PLUS and the left-wing Democracy and Solidarity Party (Partidul Democrației și Solidarității, DEMOS).

USR, formed in 2016, has risen rapidly to become the third political force in Romania. Established by known civic activists such as the mathematician Nicușor Dan, USR is the youngest party represented in the Romanian Parliament. USR was created by ordinary people who had not been involved in politics before but who were fed up with incumbent politicians’ corruption and incompetence. Its declared mission is for Romania to be governed transparently by competent people who are guided by the public interest and, above all, the rule of law.

PLUS, set up in October 2018, is led by former Romanian prime minister and European commissioner Dacian Cioloș. In 2017, Cioloș laid the foundations of Romania 100, a platform aimed at attracting civic-minded individuals to a large-scale project intended to create lasting change at both local community and nationwide levels. Many members and supporters of Romania 100 then joined the ranks of the newly formed PLUS political party, which joined forces with USR to run together in the 2019 European Parliament elections under the umbrella 2020 Alliance.

The third recently founded political party, DEMOS, is a left-leaning platform created in autumn 2015, also following the Colectiv tragedy. It was formed in response to the need to organize progressive energies in the country, and in June 2018, DEMOS was registered as the political and electoral arm of the platform. Most of the platform’s members and supporters had never been involved in politics before, but they are active at the civic and community levels. In the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, however, DEMOS did not manage to raise the required 200,000 signatures needed to qualify for the elections.

Explaining Pathways

Several factors explain the balance of the different pathways beyond mobilization in the case of Romania. These factors include the effectiveness of the original protests, the breadth of public participation in protests, and the government’s reaction to the large-scale mobilizations.

The mass demonstrations in Romania had significant immediate results. They led to the resignation of two governments and several public officials and the rejection of important draft laws, such as the mining law. The protests also managed to reach the critical mass needed in order to be able to foster political change. For instance, in 2017, the anticorruption protests forced the government to repeal Government Ordinance 13 and trigger a cabinet reshuffle of four ministers, including the justice minister. But if the protesters’ immediate demands were satisfied for the time being, the mass mobilization fell short of securing long-term outcomes in terms of preventing the ruling coalition from dismantling the justice system and undermining the independence of the judiciary. Thus, the activists’ structural demands were not met.

As such, many activists considered that the protests only delayed the governing coalition’s stronghold on public institutions and its attacks on anticorruption legislation. As the government’s actions in 2018 and 2019 clearly showed, the PSD-ALDE coalition merely changed the means of achieving its goals; in particular, it chose to use parliament (which it largely controlled) to pass bills that would relax anticorruption legislation. The struggle for long-term impact explains why some protesters lost hope and decided to lie low, without a between protest strategy. In this regard, many Romanian citizens could have grown tired after several years of protesting against corruption without concrete results.

The government’s reaction to the protests is another crucial factor in the choice of pathways, given its vital role in the escalation or diffusion of mass mobilizations. As mentioned earlier, a kind of trench war has been unfolding between the government and the protesters over several years. In line with the government’s strategy to intimidate activists and prevent other people from joining the mass demonstrations, the police and gendarmerie became more aggressive toward the protesters. The violent police intervention on August 10, 2018, is a case in point.

Furthermore, in response to the anticorruption protests, the PSD also organized progovernment demonstrations, most prominently a rally in Bucharest on June 9, 2018. This counterprotest, which involved around 100,000 participants, was aimed at showcasing the supposed legitimacy of the ruling party. However, this was not a spontaneous mobilization but rather was minutely planned by local and regional PSD structures, which coordinated bus transportation to Bucharest and paid for their protesters’ food and drinks.

In the case of activists who opted for new forms of organization and resistance, their primary motivation was to lay the foundations of a new political culture in Romania, centered on the citizens and their power to freely choose the course of their country’s development. What they were seeking was a bottom-up participatory process—what many referred to as an “IKEA effect” of people building their own decisionmaking processes and public policies. These groups of activists believed that if participatory practices and civic culture do not become rooted at the level of the ordinary citizen, democracy would remain an empty shell.

Many activists realized that only by getting involved in politics and setting up political parties of their own would they be able to exert lasting change—the end goal was to be elected to public office and take power away from the incumbent ruling coalition. Many activists now consider this approach as the only effective pathway for political change. In their view, the Romanian political system, which for years had been driven from the top down by political elites, needed to be reformed with a substantial input from civil society and new political actors. These activists also believed that political opposition should play a stronger role in preventing the abuse of power and democratic norms by the ruling coalition. Today, they continue to advocate for political participation at the wider level, so that the vast majority of citizens understand its benefits. As a consequence, the new parties that emerged in the aftermath of the mass mobilizations, in particular USR and PLUS, have become political forces in their own right.

That said, the abovementioned options are not zero-sum alternatives. There has been a symbiotic relationship between the three main postprotest pathways chosen by Romanian activists. For instance, protesters who decided to lie low in between mass mobilizations could be reactivated by participating in various civic campaigns, petitions, or mobilizations organized by activists who opted for the second pathway. The move from one pathway to the other also worked in the opposite direction, with activists who had established new forms of organization and resistance becoming demotivated and deciding to switch off for a while. Similarly, the second and third pathways overlap significantly, with activists moving back and forth between the civic and political arenas depending on the political context and their own personal motivation.

Outcomes

The success or failure of contemporary mass mobilizations is based not only on their ability to satisfy protesters’ objectives but also on their capacity to create emancipatory movements and sustain activist capital. From this point of view, the outcomes of the postprotest strategies in Romania vary greatly.

For the first group of protesters, their decision to lie low without an in-between protest strategy led to an underinstitutionalization of activism, threatening the long-term sustainability of mass mobilizations and the protest movement more generally, including the activist capital dimension. Nevertheless, these activists could be reactivated, as shown by the ensuing protest episodes in the country.

Concerning the second group of activists, who opted for new forms of organization and resistance, the main outcome of their strategy was a gradual change in the mindset of the general public. This approach also laid the basis for the consolidation and evolution of civil society in Romania. From this perspective, civic mobilization can be regarded as a formative experience, leading to a community of like-minded people—or as one activist put it, “an apprenticeship in applied democracy.”8

Influential civic networks such as Corruption Kills or Initiative Romania, as well as viral hashtags such as #resist, #all_for_justice, or #me_too, proved to be the necessary catalysts for mobilizing large groups of people to join protests, advocacy campaigns, and antigovernment petitions. They also created systems of socialization and knowledge sharing, both protest-related (for example, organizational logistics) and issue-related (such as anticorruption legislation), thus sustaining activist capital.

In this regard, before 2012, Romanians did not have a “culture of protest” or a mature spirit of civic participation. It is these activists’ creation of the abovementioned civic platforms that paved the way for a higher institutionalization of activism in the country—to the extent of achieving some (although short-lived) results in terms of blocking the adoption of government bills or legislation they believed would lead to the country’s democratic backtracking. However, many activists remained stuck in a protest mind frame for too long and thus failed to move on into other types of political engagement. As Florin Badita, the founder of Corruption Kills put it, “the protest is nice, useful and a reactive way, but if we want long-term change we have to focus more on education, as well as sustained civic and political involvement.”9

Thus, recognizing the limits of civic activism, the protester-led parties such as USR and PLUS became the new force on the Romanian political scene. In particular, the parliamentary party USR, through its political opposition role, managed to challenge the government and block several attempts to subvert the justice system. In this light, the move of these activists from the street into mainstream politics proved to be most effective postprotest strategy.

Indeed, in the European Parliament elections that took place on May 24, 2019, USR and PLUS—under the umbrella of the 2020 Alliance—managed to achieve a spectacular result of 22.4 percent of the total number of votes. Thus, they came in the third place, following the National Liberal Party (27 percent) and the incumbent Social Democratic Party (22.5 percent), with only around a 10,000-vote difference from the latter.

The election was a litmus test for the success of the activist-led political parties and their ability to take power away from the incumbent political coalition. It also marked the emergence of citizen-led politics in Romania, as a real alternative to the political establishment. But the full extent of the shaping power of activist-led political parties will be known after the November 2019 Romanian presidential election and the 2020 local and general elections.

However, one caveat must be taken into consideration. USR, PLUS, DEMOS, and the other emerging parties created by activists are movements that appeal mainly to urban audiences. To truly be able to exert lasting change on the Romanian political scene, these parties also need to engage with citizens from rural communities and small towns across the country. The PSD’s electoral success can be attributed to its regional and local party infrastructure, largely inherited from the former communist party, and activists should take this infrastructure into account in their next steps.

Conclusion

The recent wave of mass mobilizations in Romania across multiple protest cycles has managed to boost citizens’ democratic participation and create a contentious opposition toward previously well-established political forces. As such, it could be regarded as a form of mass civic activism against the political establishment, meant to trigger long-term political change.

The Romanian protests from 2012 to the present have a common underlying feature: the perception that the current representation system is flawed and must be reshaped. In this regard, they move beyond the simple ousting of certain political actors toward demanding better political representation in general. In their force of contestation and public interest representation, these protests have proven to be a powerful shaping mechanism. Thus, the mass mobilizations built up an evolutionary path through which activists and civil society gained voice and managed to shape the political process, without violence and with clear immediate results. In Romania, the shaping power of citizen activism has moreover provided a dual function of demanding better accountability from the political elites and fostering citizens’ increased participation in the political process.

In the aftermath of the mass mobilizations, civic activists opted for three main pathways. The large majority of protesters decided to lie low, waiting for the next opportunity for mass mobilizations. A few smaller groups of activists founded new forms of organization and protest in the form of civic networks and platforms, as well as viral slogans and online campaigns. Finally, some activists opted to become involved in politics directly by setting up new political parties, which proved successful with the urban electorate in particular.

Though the first group’s strategy stemmed from its disappointment with the protests’ lack of long-term outcomes, the second and third groups were driven by what they identified as a need to boost Romanian citizens’ civic culture and political involvement. This motivation had its origins in the belief that only through the consolidation of citizens’ civic and political participation would Romanians be able to exert long-term change on their political system and society at large. And whereas the first pathway threatened to undermine the sustainability of the protest movement and its associated activist capital, the second and third options proved to be more successful. In particular, the founding of new political parties by activists achieved real impact by reshaping the Romanian political landscape in favor of the political opposition. Nevertheless, the true extent of the contenders’ victory over the incumbent political class will be fully known only after the upcoming Romanian presidential, local and general elections.

Cristina Buzasu is a policy and strategy expert with more than ten years of professional experience in international organizations. She currently works for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as a principal manager in the Civil Society Engagement Unit. She has also worked as a policy advisor in the European Parliament and as a strategic management consultant. Buzasu graduated from the London School of Economics with a master’s degree in European Political Economy and also undertook specialization courses at Cambridge University and Georgetown University.

Notes

1 “Romania’s Mass Protests, Corruption Controversy Highlight Growing Risks to Foreign Investors,” Forbes, February 22, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/riskmap/2017/02/22/romanias-mass-protests-corruption-controversy-highlight-growing-risks-to-foreign-investors/#1691ca4e3a6c

2 The Visegrád Group or Visegrád Four is a cultural and political alliance of four Central European states—Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—that are members of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

3 “Mass Protests in Romania: Stop Corruption!,” Deutsche Welle, January 21, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/mass-protests-in-romania-stop-corruption/a-42240041.

4 Cristina Buzasu, “Moştenirea protestului diasporei,” Bloguri, August 17, 2018,
https://adevarul.ro/news/societate/mostenireaprotestului-diasporei-1_5b75f33bdf52022f7577e5ab/index.html.

5 Frey Lindsay, “The Romanian Diaspora Minister Wants Romanians to Come Home,” Forbes, October 11, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/freylindsay/2018/10/11/the-romanian-diaspora-minister-wants-romanians-to-come-home/#33e363a12dfa.

6 Anca Alexe, “3.4 Million Romanians Left the Country in the Last 10 Years,” Business Review, February 26, 2018, http://business-review.eu/news/3-4-million-romanians-left-the-country-in-the-last-10-years-second-highest-emigration-rate-after-syria-159038.

7 Andrei Pricopie, “Ponta: 10 august—o acţiune premeditată, organizată şi executată de Carmen Dan, la comanda lui Dragnea,” Epoch Times, September 17, 2018,

http://epochtimes-romania.com/news/ponta-10-august-o-actiune-premeditata-organizata-si-executata-de-carmen-dan-la-comanda-lui-dragnea---279006.

8 Cristina Buzasu and Clara Volintiru, “Shaping Civic Attitudes? Contemporary Protests in Romania” (forthcoming, 2019).

9 Remus Florescu, “Fondatorul ‘Corupţia ucide,’ mai popular decât Emma Watson la Premiile European Leadership: ‘Protestul e sexy, dar nu aduce schimbarea pe termen lung,’” April 2, 2018, https://adevarul.ro/locale/cluj-napoca/fondatorul-coruptia-ucide-mai-popular-decat-emma-watson-premiile-european-leadership-protestul-e-sexy-nu-aduce-schimbarea-termen-lung-1_5ac22e7fdf52022f7555e686/index.html.