I was in Bucharest’s University Square the day the protests broke out. I regularly took part each evening, despite the rains, the snow, the cold. I saw the young and the old, the unemployed, I saw corporatists, NGO employees, football hooligans, policemen dressed as civilians, all bunched up in groups clutched by chaos, calm, solidarity, nerves, inspiration and despair. I’ve seen how the long lasting belief that the man sanctifies the place – as the French saying goes, “Tant vaut l’homme, tant vaut la terre” – takes on a hard blow.
Quick, an aspirin to keep our headache from bursting! If anybody was looking for an explanation to straighten out things and make it clear why Romania’s linkage between state and society is so rotten, here it is: there’s no political solution for the situation signaled by the thousands of people protesting in the streets since the start of 2012. In Romania, the only coagulated reactions of the political class came two weeks after the riots started, falling either under admiration or disdain. Besides this, parties, politicians, members of governments kept on living the life they’re used to, lonely and alone, while the street was getting louder and louder, crying out “PDL and USL, the same kind of shit” (PDL – the Democratic Liberal ruling party, USL – the Social Liberal opposition coalition). But what exactly was the Square signaling and why should politicians be alarmed by the voices of a couple of thousands, when hundreds of thousands are silent?
I went to the University Square in Bucharest, day after day, when protests first started. Initially called a pro-Arafat gathering (Raed Arafat, state secretary within the Health Ministry, had just resigned after a public scandal with president Traian Basescu over privatizing the emergency health system which he founded in Romania), it was definitely more than that. I was there on January 15 when stones and police tear gas gained the ground, leaving behind the apocalyptic image of devastation. I have been present in the University Square ever since the protests broke out. And I’ve asked myself: why should a thousand or two thousand people matter when their requests are accompanied by the others’ silence and are transformed into a propaganda theme by the over-politicized mainstream media? And I’m not only referring to Antena 3 (a TV station controlled by Dan Voiculescu, a former communist state police officer, aggressively promoting the interests of the Social Liberal opposition coalition), because our lives won’t improve if characters like Dan Voiculescu (the owner) or Mihai Gadea (an anchor) are out of the scene.
It may sound complicated, but a type of power technocracy, which includes more than media manipulation, has taken Romania hostage and is threatening to keep it prisoner for another 20 years if nobody puts in the effort to understand part of the things that are happening today. I have seen the Square labeled as ridiculous by those who notice only the street violence and root the protests in political conspiracies. I have seen the Square exalted under the same type of thinking, by those who detect there a revolution against the “dictatorship of Traian Basescu”. Yet, the major issue is that when you are done numbering all these types of extreme opinions it is even harder to find the middle way explanation. It’s like – and this is just an example – one would try do understand democracy by mixing communism with Nazism. What is to be done, then? What should be remembered from the chaos shrouding the Square? What is to be understood, farther from Bucharest, from all the protests that have spread throughout Romania?
Politics and consensus
In the past century – history seems to give us a helping hand here! – all Romanian endemic conflicts which have opposed the state to society have ended, without any exception, with the former’s victory. Even when challenging the regime was at the roots of things, like in December 1989, the critical debate was bureaucratically channeled and assumed by the political power which deprived it of any civic meaning. It’s nothing complicated: democratization is born, inevitably, out of the tension opposing citizens to governing politicians. Just that, in our case, the only debate that has animated post-communist Romania until this January 2012 was about the moral standards of party members. Better politicians, better democracy, we all naively thought. And that’s exactly what the Square challenges: the untroubled belief that the man sanctifies the place takes on a hard blow now.
Since the protests began, I have repeatedly heard people saying they are disappointed by the whole political class, including its selection mechanisms. The problem is not to be found within the parties, but within the system that produces them, I concluded. Thus, from this point of view, the people’s riot is an anti systemic one. The only difference is that here protesters are not fighting the system as it should be, but the system as it is. And their outrage cannot be subscribed to a global trend, though there is a state of dissatisfaction for the way the world is built. I’ve heard in the public Square touchy slogans, but also very naïve ones, such as “no more governments run by multinationals”.
I felt the people there, I saw them, I talked to them and I could understand that a democracy cannot rely on the human quality of those accountable for managing it. This is a mistake made before by Romanians: several times voters stamped a projection of integrity and anticorruption. They fantasized about the knight in shiny armor. And when you vote like that, the struggle takes the form of a civil war being fought in silent mode: if your knight had won, you would smile triumphantly and in vain; if not, you would just swear through your teeth awaiting the divine intervention. Damn it, democracy is not a board game!
- “Civic virtues are less of a premise of a democratic regime and more of a consequence of its institutional constraints. When a democracy is governed by people with uncertain civic profile dubbed by a precarious morality, what is to be argued is not their presence in the public space, but the constitutional order, the juridical and political norms and principles which allow the production and reproduction of such political figures,” writes the political science professor Daniel Barbu in this book “Politics for barbarians”.
And yes, people yell “Down with Basescu!” and, at first glance, it all seems to be the same excessive and evil personification of problems that will not go away if political characters change. However, there is more to it. I have seen a puny root in the sandy soil of the University Square which should not be buried under the pile of accusations, idealizations and conspiracies. For the first time, Romanians are crying out against the performance of the rule of law as we know it in Romania. “Please excuse us for not producing as much as you are stealing” is not just a slogan addressed to the head of state or to the members of the ruling Liberal Democrat party. It is also about the uncontrolled expansion of the state as envisioned by politicians, while people were watching from the outside, casting a vote once every four years and ready to hear a new story about the knight in a shiny armor that will save the country from corruption, poverty and, of course, the previous government. The Romanian protests challenge the extremely limited performance of the state within its current institutional frame.
The people I’ve seen in the University Square in downtown Bucharest wake up at 7 a.m. and get home God knows when, but this is not an explanation for the enormous discontent they feel towards the agents of power. The explanation is much simpler and it resides in the mix of corruption and contempt which they see every day and for the first time they are not looking for the simplest of solutions. “Down with Basescu?” This is not the solution, it’s merely a part of it as none of those present in the Square thinks a deep reform of the state is possible under the guidance of the incumbent president. Maybe stances are more radical nowadays, but who can blame the people for not trusting politicians when all they see at the right side of presidential promises are people like Elena Udrea (Minister of Tourism), Gabriel Oprea (Minister of Defense), Traian Igas (Minister of Domestic Affairs), Ioan Oltean (PDL senator), Roberta Anastase (PDL deputy and the head of the Chamber of Deputies) and Elena Basescu (the president’s youngest daughter, a Member of the European Parliament). Some of them have been changed after the recent government reshuffle in mid-February, but they are still associated in people’s heads with corruption and a servile attitude.
I have seen people in the University Square, and not a few, who had believed in Traian Basescu and who now understand that, no matter what the president’s intentions are, a functional democracy cannot stand up on the pillars of goods intentions or personal integrity. For the first time, I have seen out there a conflict that opposes the state to the society and which could end with a historic premier: the defeating of the former by the latter.
Romanians have had a difficult relationship with power. History can give a helping hand once again to find a plethora of cases when those elected, initially carried on huge waves of sympathy, ended up in an ocean of hate. President Traian Basescu is just the latest example. As exhausted and helpless as the institution he represents, Basescu wanted to reform all Romania and is now incapable of doing anything at all. All his public stands indicate this, his nervous breakouts in the most unexpected of situations being the ultimate evidence. The fight with doctor Raed Arafat was just a symptom. And his incapacity of admitting this simple failure is nothing but fuel for the confusion spurred by media channels such as Antena 3 (just an example, maybe the most visible one, but not the only one). The lesson very few have understood is that many of the people protesting in Romania have already indulged in this failure.
There are Romanians out there who know they should get involved and demand another type of rule of law and who will not see any impediments in the fear that their effort could be cannibalized by Dan Voiculescu’s media channels. And this because Voiculescu himself should be afraid of the “awakening” of those in slumber: they now demand political participation and deliberation, not a new voting procedure at the end of which the current political parties will just redistribute the cotes of state exploitation. No matter the ambitions of Antena 3 and no matter how many illusions it will make, convincing a few that it synthesizes the will of all, the trend in the Square is different. Remove the thin explanation of recession-related arguments – they are not the fundamental engine of discontent, if they had been such an impulse then the numerous 2011 strike-like initiatives of unions would have had a happy end – and just have a look further.
The Square heated up when people felt that politics invaded their last space of autonomy: that of the silent and efficient competence, with durable effects but accompanied by little ado. Thus, the Raed Arafat case was just the right kind of paradigm to show how the rule of law transforms itself into an unjust state through the simple will of one man. There are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people like Raed Arafat in Romania. Don’t look down on them.
However reforming, the dictatorship of people cannot promise more than that of laws – this is the main message of the Square, as it is getting acquainted with the alphabet that will bring about the end of politics as we knew it. And, in the end, compromises made in the past weeks by the current government show that there is a possibility for state reforms to actually happen. From the bottom all the way up to the top.
- “A red smelly republic, that of code names Basescu and Voiculescu is about to die. Today the filthy wave carries Basescu upstream and Voiculescu downstream. It could have easily been the other way around”, wrote the dissident poet Dorin Tudoran in July 2006. Back then there were troubled days, the owner of Antena TV stations had just been unveiled as an informant of the former secret communist police – the Securitate – while Traian Basescu was reaching the height of his popularity.
After ten days spent in the University Square my feeling is that protesters want anything but this: a republic where political scandals pour down the drain, away from anything that could mean competitive values in a society. People are just sick and tired of their country being labeled as a democracy just because it checks the technical requirement of having regular free elections.
Nothing is simpler than under-assessing what is going in the University Square: you just invoke those who say nonsense, you stir suspicions related to the political interests hereby connected, and then inflate the violent tendencies of those attending. Pushing the 15 January violent clashes in Bucharest to the suburbs of all preoccupations, we risk missing all the reasons this happened in the first place. Considering that only a small part of those involved in the events were actually hooligans, the question should get at least some reflection time, if not an entire answer: why would a normal person, working in a multinational corporation and wearing jeans bought from the mall pick up a stone and furiously throw it at riot police?
The generation of those present in the Union Square on January 15 is the generation that will fuel the economy in the next 20-25 years. They will be paying the pensions and ensure the sustainability of social insurance funds, finance road construction and paying public employees. They will be going out on weekend nights and drink five-six beers in the old city center of Bucharest and spend winter holidays in the mountains. Or they will not. It depends on the answers they will get to the above questions. Taking into account these answers, the costs of destruction on the night of January 15 could be even higher.
Nothing points out more the misunderstanding that surrounds the University Square protests than the evaluation of voting intentions made by political parties. Those in power and members of the opposition see the protests in black and white: the former as a curse, the latter as a chance. I believe they’re making the ultimate mistake. Parts of Romania are still silent as the whole country has kept quiet in the past years. However, other parts have learned that they also play a political role and that they can be a loyal competitor for the state. They should be taken into account.
Now, the dwellers of this Romania demand the normality of a partnership with those that lead them, plus more respect and a functional state where power doesn’t rule, it governs. Certainly, not the whole Square is made up of such people and maybe outside Bucharest they are just a minority. However, they were those I wanted to see, because their voice tells the story of a society facing its future and not its past.
- In his first speech after the protests started, president Traian Basescu mentioned the smug of politicians, reforms, “opening up a new country horizon”, “serving the people”, “modest and decent behavior” and even developing tourism and the food industry. He did it in a terrible wooden language, as a man who is sure of what is to be done. “I am a ship commander and I never missed a destination. I am not going to miss it this time either,” the president said. “We need another platform of confidence for the reform project”, he said pointing to the health reform laws. Without even realizing it, Mr. Reform had just mentioned his own death.