On 5 February over half a million Romanians took to the streets of cities and towns across the country to protest against attempts by the recently elected PSD-ALDE (Social Democratic Party – Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) government to weaken anti-corruption legislation.

These were the largest protests in Romania since the revolution of 1989 that overthrew the Communist regime. What is more, the demonstrations were peaceful and represent a rare moment of society coming together. In a region where governments are becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent and society more deeply polarised, why have Romanians taken to the streets to demand the resignation of a government elected a little over a month ago?

Many Central and East European states have rich traditions of popular protests to draw upon. Romania does not. Romania did not have any great protests such as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 or the Czechoslovak Prague Spring. The repressive nature of Communist rule worked against the formation of civil society; there was no Romanian counterpart to the Polish Solidarity Movement. Communism collapsed in the face of mass protests but only following extreme violence.

The violence led to the revolution being "stolen" as second-tier Communists seized control in the confusion. Romania's new government showed its intolerance of dissent in 1990 when it brought miners to Bucharest to violently attack pro-democracy demonstrators, and the fear of government instigated violence against protesters has never been far from people's minds and made many reluctant to engage with direct protests.

Rediscovering Protest

Despite the inauspicious history of protest in Romania, civil activism and protests have increasingly become a feature of politics over the last decade. Civil activism has at its heart a younger generation of Romanians. It has its roots in the environmental movement and in particular the protests against the attempt by Gabriel Resources to engage in gold mining at the historic Rosia Montana site.

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Although it was accepted that in an area of high unemployment economic development was welcomed, the deal between the Romanian government and the Canadian mining company was not. There would be few economic benefits for locals and the potential environmental damage was too great for many people. The government was perceived as lining its pockets through this deal at the expense of the people and the environment. With the government so heavily invested in the deal, it was pointless to look to politicians to oppose the deal. The protests and opposition have helped to delay the project thus far.

One of the criticisms of Romanian intellectuals and civil activists is their unwillingness to engage with non-intellectuals. The Rosia Montana protests represented a first step connecting different groups. Many of the early activists learnt key skills and began to develop networks during the campaigns. These came to the fore again during anti-austerity protests in 2011.

For the first two days we were moving, marching, on the third we stayed where we were, on the fourth we went home again.

Social media has been critical. In a state with often poor infrastructure, where travel between major cities can take a day or several hours to reach surrounding towns from a given city, social media has enabled groups to connect together. Social media has gone some way to breaking the domination that the PSD and its supporters had over information. Although the media is free in Romania, the primary source of information for many was through television and this was to a considerable extent controlled by groups close to the PSD.

Alongside the expansion of social media, migration has played a key role in changing the dynamics of Romanian politics. Since 2007, many Romanians of all classes have gone to work abroad, which has helped to foster a diaspora community with a strong sense of awareness of itself and politics in Romania, and this has fed back home.

Romanian civil society is not a homogenous group either politically or in its approach to activism. As a result, there is often bitter infighting between different groups, which can weaken opposition. There are differences over what issues should be the primary focus as well as how to engage in opposition. It is perhaps easier to think of Romanian activism as a large umbrella under which very many groups shelter but who often come together during moments of political crisis.

Romania
People protest in front of the government headquarters against the government's contentious corruption decree in Bucharest, Romania Andrei Pungobschi/AFP

Activism and street demonstrations are not born of choice but rather of necessity. During the 2014 presidential elections, the incumbent PSD led government attempted to suppress the vote from the large Romanian diaspora. Thus the call for those at home to go and vote to prevent the government stealing the election was key to mobilising support. Activists who had cut their teeth on the Rosia Montana protests were at the forefront of organising people.

The Colectiv nightclub fire of November 2015, which killed 64, brought people back onto the street. These protests brought down the PSD government of Victor Ponta, but in its place came a new technocratic government, which to the disappointment of many maintained the same policies as the Ponta government but with less authoritarian tendencies. The sense during the Colectiv protests was that Romania was on the eve of the revolution that had been stolen from them in 1989.

However, this quickly dissipated. As one protester lamented: "For the first two days we were moving, marching, on the third we stayed where we were, on the fourth we went home again." It was this sense of disillusionment that led many voters to stay at home in the December elections which saw the PSD return to power a year after Colectiv.

The attempts by the new PSD government to weaken anti-corruption legislation have brought people back onto the street. These protests have spread across the country and have drawn all sections of society.

Protest and activism is not just limited to those who oppose the PSD and its supporters. The Coalition for the Family, an organisation opposed to same-sex marriage with support from the Orthodox Church, was able to collect over three million signatures in favour of amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Limitations

Each moment of crisis over the last decade has led to more engagement with civic activism. Despite this, there has been little substantive change in Romanian politics. The same parties and politicians are elected and they continue to govern as they did before. While the protest movements have been high in intensity and mass mobilisation, they have rarely been long lasting, and it is likely that the current government believes that it can weather the storm and within a few days the protesters will either turn on one another or grow bored and return home.

Civil society thus far is very good at opposing but very bad at formulating an alternative. Its tendency towards infighting is a reflection of its diversity, which is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness as it prevents united action. Whether this is the moment when civil society finally effects meaningful change, or whether this is another false dawn remains to be seen.


Daniel Brett is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. He studied at the University of London and has previously taught at Indiana University. His work focuses on democratisation and party politics in Eastern Europe.