Demonstrations in Romania: symptoms of a deeper malaise

Demonstrations in Romania: symptoms of a deeper malaise

A woman holds up a sign that says « All for justice » during a demonstration to denounce judicial and fiscal reforms outside the Romanian parliament in Bucharest on 26 November 2017.

(AP/Vadim Ghirda)

Romania is again in crisis. For the last few weeks, for the second time this year, there have been demonstrations in towns and cities around the country.
On Sunday evenings, responding to the call of several groups formed through social media, the streets of Bucharest, Iasi, Cluj-Napoca and Timisoara are flooded with hundreds of people venting their exasperation at the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which has been in power since 2012.

On Sunday 26 November, trade unions linked to civil society organisations issued a joint call for a protest against judicial and fiscal reforms. Some 30,000 people answered the call in Romania’s capital city, while about 20,000 mobilised in other cities around the country.

The movement is by no means as big as the one that shook the country last January and February, but essentially their complaint is the same: the weakening of the anti-corruption drive.

The Romanian parliament is again trying to pass a series of laws aimed at reducing the independence of magistrates, which would undermine their effectiveness and above all that of the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA).

Since its creation in 2002, this institution has been carrying out a veritable “clean-up” of the political class – and anti-corruption was one of the prerequisites of Romania’s membership of the European Union.

No political office, and no political party, has been spared. The case of Liviu Dragnea, president of the PSD and the country’s most powerful man, speaks volumes: two years ago he was given a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud.

He is currently on trial again, over fictitious jobs; and on 13 November he appeared for a hearing before the DNA which seized property from him for a total value of €27.3 million, in a fraud case involving European funds.

Anti-corruption drive: the red line that must not be crossed

In Romania, a country where inequality is flagrant, where one person in five lives below the poverty line, where one-third of employees are paid the minimum wage, attacks on the anti-corruption drive are too much to bear.

“After the fall of communism, some politicians and business leaders became rich overnight through the dubious privatisation of public industries. But then one day, they found themselves in court and going to prison, and had their money confiscated,” says Mircea Mare, a 30-year-old web developer involved in the civil society movements.

“We don’t want to see justice moving backwards, when it has at last become effective,” says Mircea, who has been out on the streets of Cluj-Napoca several times to protest against the decisions of parliament.

And there has been plenty to protest about in recent years: first there was the “Black Tuesday of the anti-corruption drive” when members of parliament took the country by surprise on 10 December 2013 by voting in favour of their own “super immunity”; then on 30 October 2015 a deadly fire broke out in a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv, killing 65 people.

This disaster revealed “a system that mixed incompetence with shady deals and negligence” and provoked huge demonstrations, leading to the fall of the PSD government, although it returned to power just a few months later.

Finally, Decree 13, adopted on 31 January 2017, foresaw changes to the penal code in favour of politicians sentenced on corruption charges. The Romanian people were enraged, and 600,000 people came out onto the streets. It was the biggest protest movement the country had seen since the end of communism.

“Romanians have come to see the anti-corruption drive as a sort of cure-all for all their problems,” explains Vincent Henry, a political science researcher at the University of Paris-East and a specialist in Romania and Moldova, in an interview with Equal Times.

“They imagine that if something isn’t working properly, it is because the politicians are corrupt. It is a simplistic response to a series of much more complicated problems that go well beyond the single issue of corruption. Actually, the state is dysfunctional in general, the political class is incompetent, and the state structures lack means and durability.”

Lack of political alternatives

The demonstrations of the last few years have given birth to numerous civil initiatives. Rezistenta TV is one of them. This online television channel was created by a group of Bucharest activists, following the protests against Decree 13.

“We realised that if all we did was demonstrate, it wouldn’t change the situation and it wouldn’t resolve the problems we have, such as the lack of education, at the civil, political and legal level,” says Mihai Tudorica, one of its founders.

In their broadcasts, many people from the legal world (lawyers, judges, prosecutors, etc.) are invited to decipher live what is happening in the public institutions – debates often followed by thousands of people.

But these initiatives also have their limits. “Civil society cannot continually make up the shortcomings of our public services. In fact, people are deciding to take matters in hand and resolve their own problems, and ultimately it is a very liberal approach, because they are just doing the state’s job for it,” says Henry. “If this civil society movement does not become political, it could lose momentum”.

The Save Romania Union (USR) is the only association that has turned into a political party, bringing into its fold many activists with very different ideologies. It is the first time that a new political formation that has evolved from a civil society initiative (rather than the reform of traditional parties) has entered parliament.

It shows the very real need to renew the Romanian political class, which is monolithic with an almost non-existent opposition. But the USR has the problem of dealing with members who have sometimes opposing political views, which seems to limit and even paralyse its action in parliament.

A fiscal “revolution” that is harmful to employees

This lack of alternatives, of a political opposition, to the hegemony of the PSD is completely blocking the democratic process. “This political apathy has been going on for years. Romania is going from crisis to crisis,” says Henry.

“When a new crisis arises, the only weapon available to the people is to demonstrate. So they come out onto the streets, they block the streets, the government takes a step back, etc. But we are just going round in circles because there isn’t always a political alternative. Until the next demonstration…which could be triggered by all kinds of events.”

The next “event” has already happened, but the Romanians will not feel the effects until 1 January 2018.

The government has launched its “fiscal revolution” adopted by decree, which transfers social security contributions from the employer to the employee.
The employer’s share will fall from 22.5 per cent to 10 times less, while the employee’s share will rise from 32.5 per cent to 45 per cent.

Based on the same gross salary, employees will see their net pay cut by 20 per cent. It’s a first for Europe.

Andrian Dohotaru, a member of parliament who used to be affiliated to the USR, has criticised this measure, reminding the government that “social democratic values mean creating more solidarity in society, more fairness, and in general greater rights to protection for those who work to have a better life. With these changes the government has completely abandoned its values and therefore the workers.”

In reality, the measure is just the boomerang effect of a PSD campaign promise to increase public servants’ gross salaries by 25 per cent from 1 January 2018. But the government is in a bind over this because the budget could never cover such an increase. And so the government is increasing public servants’ gross salaries, but only by making them pay charges that had hitherto been its responsibility as their employer. And this tax change was adopted without any consultations with the unions or business.

Furthermore, those who are on the minimum wage will barely notice the increase promised by the government: the gross minimum wage is due to increase on 1 January from 1,450 lei to 1,900 lei (€375 to €490), but in reality the tax changes mean that workers will only earn an additional 96 lei, or €20 euros...

“The government has done what it usually does: it has given with one hand and taken away with another, and it is going to trigger real social dumping,” warns Bogdan Hossu, president of the Cartel Alfa union.

“This measure coupled with inflation and the increase in fuel and food prices will bring additional social pressure. But the Romanians won’t feel it until the end of January...”

Things are going to hot up in Romania this winter.

This story has been translated from French.