Meanwhile in Romania…

The flag of Romania

While most people in the United States are fixated on the war of words between the executive and judicial branches of our federal government, there is another such battle taking place far from away in the nation of Romania.

I cannot think about Romania without remembering my best friend from graduate school, who was a native of the former Communist state. In one of our first conversations, I told her that when someone said the word “Romania”, I immediately thought of gymnasts. She seemed a bit befuddled and replied, “From what I hear, it’s usually vampires…Transylvania!”

We would all gather for dinner in the cafeteria of the international students’ dorm. There was a group of Russian students that tended to sit together. Aura (for such was my friend’s name), who was normally a courteous person, looked upon them with disdain. When I suggested that perhaps these students should not be equated with the policies of the Russian government, Aura replied as if all Russians were exactly the same. “They invaded my country!” she complained.

This brought home to me something that is easy for people to lose sight of here in the West. We often look upon the USSR as a distant memory. Some people are in the business of trying to find a silver lining in those years of Soviet domination throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. Others seem intent on casting the current Russian regime in the best light possible, portraying President Putin as a strong leader trying to bring about global stability.

Yet, in the nation of Romania, the scars of the Cold War are still deeply felt. In the years just after World War II, the country was heavily dominated by the Soviet Union, which took advantage of Romanian resources for its own purposes. The rise to power of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1965 resulted in a small takeback of independence with regard to foreign policy, but it came at a cost. Ceaușescu was essentially an autocrat whose economic austerity measures, meant to pay back foreign loans, had the side effect of bringing extreme poverty and food shortages to many Romanians. He also took the typical step made by many Communist leaders of imposing a cult of personality and having the country’s citizens tracked by a secret police network. In 1989, the people had finally had enough. A revolution overthrew Ceaușescu and resulted in the executions of him and his wife. This was part of the chain reaction of uprisings that occurred throughout Eastern Europe and helped lead to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Since then, Romania has been making efforts to become more open and democratic. As has been the case in many countries, the legacy of Communist rule has proved difficult to overcome. Romania did join NATO in 2004 and become a full member of the European Union in 2007. This has made it one of several Eastern European nations pointing itself squarely toward the West, a trend that I have argued elsewhere is highly concerning for Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Romania is the second poorest nation per capita in the EU, and it ranks below most European nations on Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index.

This latter point is most relevant to the protests that have broken out in recent days. On January 31, the Romanian government issued an ordinance that decriminalized certain corruption offenses. The government claimed that this measure was needed because of overcrowding jails and an outdated criminal code, but the people mostly saw an attempt to avoid accountability. This resulted in a spontaneous demonstration in Victoriei Square in central Bucharest, right in front of the government headquarters.

As The New York Times reports, “Corruption is an endemic problem across Eastern Europe. But Romania’s long struggle against it has placed the issue at the center of its political debate. The government decree would have decriminalized some corruption offenses, which alarmed Romanian judges and prosecutors.”

Protests in Bucharest on February 1st. Photo by Wikipedia user Babu

As so often happens, the protests quickly took on a life of their own. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Bucharest and throughout the country. They demanded not only that the ordinance be annulled, but that the guilty people should start resigning.  Politico has noted that, “Government friendly TV stations continue to manipulate audiences and slander anyone involved in the protests.” However, the protesters keep coming out night after night, even braving a blizzard to make their voices heard.

Let me put this in perspective for you. Romania is a nation of just under 20 million people. I have seen reports that more than 500,000 were protesting at a single time, a very high percentage indeed. About the same number of people were estimated to have attended the Women’s March on Washington a couple weeks ago, and that is in a nation with a population over 320 million. The kind of pressure now being brought to bear on the government in Bucharest is palpable, and it has produced some results.

Late last week, the Romanian government announced a reversal of its position. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu pledged that, “We will hold an extraordinary meeting on Sunday to repeal the decree, withdraw it, cancel it.” This was enough to help the government survive a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, but Politico noted earlier today, “At the time of writing, the fate of the original ordinance is still uncertain…”

It is therefore not surprising that Justice Minister Florin Iordache, who was one of the officials behind the controversial measure, was forced to resign yesterday. The business minister, Florin Jianu, had already stepped down last week, saying at the time, “I don’t want to have to tell my child that I was a coward and I agreed to something that I don’t believe in.”

The BBC has produced an excellent article looking at one of the complicated aspects of all of this: the creation of an anti-corruption directorate – known to Romanians as “DNA” – that has been tasked with rooting out graft at all levels of government. Its leader, Laura Codruta Kovesi, has become something of a rock star in her own country and beyond. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor, and polling suggests that twice as many Romanians trust her agency as trust the government. She has pledged not to be taken in by politicians, promising that, “I will answer to the citizens.”

However, some say that DNA is becoming too reminiscent of the secret police that operated within Romania under Communist rule. The directorate does use methods such as wiretapping, but it states that it always obtains a warrant first. So is DNA the problem or the solution? It depends on who you ask.

The Romanian Palace of Parliament in happier times. Photo by Dennis Jarvis

The BBC also interviewed a former Romanian prime minister, Calin Tariceanu, who is currently president of the Romanian Senate and leads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats. “Mr. Tariceanu admits that the government’s actions and the way they have been communicated have been clumsy but he insists that they were well-intentioned. He rejects the perception, widely held in Romania and abroad, that the conflict is a battle between corrupt officials and a society fighting against corruption. ‘I regret having to say this, but the judiciary in Romania is not independent, and this is the clear issue which has to be addressed in the future.’”

I take Tariceanu’s point. Indeed, this whole episode is reminding me quite a lot of the time I spent working for the Egyptian government. That was another country where corruption was simply a way of life: where you had to bribe junior government officials to get your paperwork processed, where the judiciary seemed utterly incompetent, where the politicians seemed out of touch with the public mood, and where civil society was rather helpless to do anything about it. In fact, I dare say that Romania is in better shape than Egypt, which is still essentially being ruled by a military leader, albeit a somewhat popular one. Such problems cannot be solved overnight, and it is tempting to throw up one’s hands and say, “That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

The people of Romania must not do this. We have seen in these past few days the power they have to hold their government accountable, and they must put it to good use. Keeping up that pressure is the only way to see an improvement in public institutions: the legislature, the judiciary, the media. Things may seem dire right now on the streets of Bucharest, but I would submit that the country is in a better position than it was under the dictator Ceaușescu. The real threat is that it will backtrack on the progress it has made since 1989, so let us hope that organizations like DNA will stay within their mandate and root out corruption rather than succumbing to it.

I would like to return at this point to something I suggested in my recent article about the French presidential election. The European Union has been in quite a bit of trouble these past few years. The financial woes of Greece, Italy, and Ireland (among others) have pushed the common currency to its limits. We now have the bigger philosophical question of whether the “ever closer union” envisioned by the EU’s champions is really something that Europeans want on the whole. The British have voted to leave and it is possible that others will follow. Who stands to lose from all of this?

Yes, on the day after the Brexit vote, there were plenty of people exclaiming to the BBC, “My country has lost its mind!” “I can’t believe what we’ve done!” “Our economy and our way of life are doomed!” However, I am inclined to think that the UK will probably come through all of that just fine. The transition period will be rough as it attempts to work out a bunch of separate trade deals and repatriate certain government functions from Brussels. However, I believe that the long-term financial outlook is good. The British economy is still fundamentally sound and has a lot to offer.

Map of the European Union (soon to be changed by Brexit) by Wikipedia user Kolja21

If the European Union went belly up, it would certainly be tough for France and Germany, but they would find a way to move on, for they are strong. The countries that stand to lose the most are those that entered the EU recently: those in the former Soviet bloc. Their political systems are less stable. Their economies are nowhere near as dynamic. They have benefitted greatly from rules that allow their citizens to go and work in other EU countries, the very thing that has upset so many in the UK. The end of the EU would leave these nations in a serious lurch. And who do we suppose will be there to lend a helping hand? Russia, of course.

Perhaps I sound anti-Russian in my assessment. I do not mean to be. Russia is a great country that has contributed much to the world. Even now, there are a lot of amazing things happening in Russia. Yet, if it’s corruption we’re talking about, Russia hits the mother load. The government of Putin is absolutely autocratic, silencing its opponents, parroting its propaganda around the globe, getting neck deep into all kinds of shady business dealings, making an art form out of hacking – well, I could go on and on. The Russian people are ill-served by their government: the politicians are the problem, per usual.

My concern with Eastern Europe is always that the countries will stop looking West, stop the implementation of democracy, and turn instead to what is being peddled by Putin. If I truly thought that the Russian government had the best interest of these countries in mind, I might not see this as such a negative development, but remember back to what my friend said about the Russians: “They invaded my country!” Romanians suffered greatly under Soviet domination, regardless of what historical revisionists might attempt to claim. I firmly believe that certain people in Russia, such as President Putin, still possess an imperial mentality that sees much of Eurasia as a “Russian sphere” in which it should have wide latitude. (See, for example, its actions in Georgia and Ukraine.) I do not want Romania to be dominated by either East or West, but I think they have a better shot at true independence if they are more in the Western sphere.

Thus, the fight on the streets of Bucharest this week has implications for both the past and the future. I am certainly no expert on Romania, but I do hope to see a decrease in corruption throughout the country, which is what average Romanians desire as well. As one Romanian doctor told The New York Times,

“I went to all the protests that have taken place in Bucharest during the last three weeks. Like so many others, I felt that the recent government decree…was the first sign that Romania was turning away from democracy and the rule of law.”

This is an important fight for Romania, and they must win. Even so, let us all make an effort to support “democracy and the rule of law”, wherever we happen to live.