“Romania is not sexy,” a fellow academic once told me. “Nobody cares what happens there, nobody wants to study it. There’s so little going on there that’s really exciting or new. ” I thought she was right at the time. After all, I was also always going on about the political apathy of much of my fellow Romanians, the very slow pace of change after the fall of communism in December 1989, as well as the indifference of post-revolutionary governments towards preserving the memory of the totalitarian regime and its survivors. Apathy and amnesia were, I thought, the two main curses of my people.
But four years ago, something finally started happening.The country saw its largest protests since the December 1989 revolution. I was never more pleased to see people angry. Government plans to create a huge opencast gold mine in Roșia Montana managed to galvanize energies from previously unrelated parts of the Romanian population. In September 2013, thousands started protesting against the ultimately unsuccessful government initiative. During the demonstrations, I remember looking around to see who my fellow protesters were: mostly middle-class college-educated men and women in their thirties, like myself, but also a handful of older people, as well as people carrying signs with religious and ultra-nationalist messages. They’d bring along their kids and dogs, and for months we’d meet regularly (granted, scoffing at one another), guarded by security forces whose wariness was soon replaced by amusement, admiration, friendliness, and even boredom, and our increasingly elaborate signs and costumes marked the beginnings of a creative culture of protest.
increasingly elaborate signs and costumes marked the beginnings of a creative culture of protest.
In November 2015 over 25,000 people staged an emotional anti-government demonstration after a fire in a Bucharest nightclub killed and maimed hundreds, a tragedy that was made possible at least in part by what protesters felt was the general corruption and lack of proper fire-control and other regulations. The government fell the next day. It seemed to me the crowd around me had gotten both angrier and more diverse. Most of the people who died were, again, middle-class, well-educated, and working in creative professions, but their deaths reverberated across social classes and created diffuse and under-examined fury against the status quo.
The media focused on individual stories of survival and tragedy with relish, and the horrifying spectacle of charred bodies and screaming relatives brought many people into the streets from all sides of the political spectrum. For weeks, the news broadcast the growing number of the dead, and the cracks in the Romanian medical system recalled old wounds. It’s impossible to find a Romanian family unaffected by the dismal situation in Romanian hospitals, and so the new technocratic cabinet gave some people hope that the widespread corruption from the medical and other sectors would finally be addressed. “The day we give in is the day we die,” a line of a song by Goodbye to Gravity, the metal rock band playing in Colectiv nightclub on the night of the fire, became the sad truncated anthem of the Romanians’ new hope for change.
the Colectiv nightclub tragedy was further exploited by part of the media for its sensationalist potential, with disastrous political results
But the Colectiv nightclub tragedy was further exploited by part of the media for its sensationalist potential, with disastrous political results. Several TV stations—owned by friends of the recently departed government—repeatedly aired conspiracy theories that stated the fire had been set on purpose in order to bring about the fall of the government. In a rhetorical frenzy whose logic bordered on the insane, they tapped into the very same fears and anger that had brought protesters out in the first place. One year later, after an election whose pathetically low turnout seemed to mark the beginning of a new and heightened level of popular apathy, a version of the old government was back in power.
This takes us to early February 2017, when over 500,000 people all over Romania demonstrated against the government’s attempt to stealthily pass an order that would have considerably shortened the jail sentences of corrupt politicians, as well as prevented many others from ever being indicted. But this time, even though the prime minister retracted the order, the protests are not stopping. Even though numbers have been dwindling, people have been protesting outside the building of the Romanian government, as well as across the country, every day for the past three weeks. This time, though, the government hasn’t fallen, despite the great numbers of protesters, despite their increasingly creative signs, despite the gathering of previously untapped energies, and despite public outcries in the international press.
people have been protesting outside the building of the Romanian government, as well as across the country, every day for the past three weeks.
The stakes are too high for the new government, who is still in control of a part of the media whose tabloid rhetoric is superbly efficient. For some of its members, going home is going to jail. We are locked in this stalemate, waving our #Colectiv signs, bemoaning our own reluctance to go and vote when we could have, thinking up new ways of consolidating the spectacular visuals of this new wave of protests, and being happy that we are no longer sleeping as soundly as before.
Romania has become sexier: we are in the news, our friends from abroad cheer us on, and pictures of our beautiful new revolution are published in the foreign press. And yet we have no reason to be over-optimistic: the rift in the Romanian society runs deep, and the new anti-corruption unity that we’ve been celebrating in the streets and the alternative media is still a fragile construct. We’ll let you know how it goes: this time it looks like we’re happy to be angry for as long as it takes.
Featured image © icsPhoto / Mosloc Andrei