“It’s like if you catch a robber in the act, and he gives you your stuff back, that’s still not okay.”
I was speaking to Adrian. He was tall, scruffy-bearded, and wore a knitted brown hat to protect him from the cold blue Bucharest sky. The swelling crowds that had packed the capital’s Victory Square several weeks prior, had abated. A motley gathering of Rezist activists had taken it upon themselves to keep the protest alive, however. The toots from the passing cars pointed to their wider support.
At the turn of the year, the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) exposed some of the ghosts wandering the Romanian halls of power when it attempted to push a new corruption law out as an emergency decree. The legislation would have absolved anyone who had defrauded the state for less than €44,000 ($46K). It was met with crowds of demonstrators in numbers unseen since the fall of Communism in this southeast Balkan state.
Pushing a law through the backdoor is nothing unusual for a Romanian government. This time, it was merely a misjudgment of a changing audience. The political generation gap that exists almost universally is particularly pronounced here. A tech-savvy, English-speaking, westward-looking youth are returning, or deciding to stay put, in growing numbers. They are less receptive to government propaganda that abounds in the media. The older generation, in contrast, born under the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, were largely confused by the demonstrations. Parents would question their children as they headed out the front door, armed with flags and placards. They´re simply not used to it.
The government’s grip on the media is astounding. The owner of two of Romania’s major TV channels, a former politician who is behind bars for corruption, still holds huge sway over what the average Romanian family sees every day on the box. Indeed, when the protests broke, the airwaves were chock-a-block with George Soros conspiracy theories- that old trope. Reports focused on some of the boisterous thugs in the crowd and tarred the whole revolt with the same brush. When President Klaus Iohannis, whose office is largely ceremonial, came out against the corruption decree, the media turned on him.
But the crowds persisted.
Several weeks later, the PSD yanked the legislation and hung their justice minister out to dry. The demonstrators called it a day. The robbers had given back the stuff.
But for many, it wasn´t enough.
I asked Adrian what his group hoped to achieve from their presence in Victory Square. He told me Romania needed a transparent parliamentary system. Electronic voting, too, perhaps. How do you go about making the change? That seemed less clear.
An alternative political option is beginning to take root in Romania however, and one of its members, a clean-cut and well-dressed man, was stood watching my conversation – Cornel Zainea of the Save Romania Union (USR) party.
The USR shouldered its way onto the political scene when, in 2016, it landed 43 parliamentary seats_ 30 lower, 13 upper_ in the legislative elections, becoming the country’s third biggest party. It sought to change policies from the inside – a daunting task in Romania’s Parliament, with friends like those.
The USR’s syncretic style, its emphasis on cleaning up the environment and dodgy bank accounts, won the support of over 600,000 people. The party is young, unorganized, but aspirational.
Over a beer and lunch just off Victory square, Zainea told me about his transition into politics from a comfortable software engineering job he shared with his wife, Alina. He had been involved with the Save Bucharest Movement under the direction of its mathematician-turned-politician leader Nicusur Dan, for whom he had limitless praise. This is a common pattern from the top down in the USR. Young professionals, not politicians, comprise the rank and file of the party. A blessing and a curse. The party is squeaky clean. A breath of fresh air in those haunted halls of power. But the USR members are having to learn quickly. They are up against the veterans.
The state media, in the hands of the government, gives little airtime to the USR, unless it’s negative. Yet the technocratic upstarts of the USR were ruffling the feathers in the Chamber of Deputies by holding sit-in protests, by filming procedures in the name of transparency, and by being vocal.
“They hate us because we are very different, we don’t respect the rules,” Zainea told me.
“And because [the USR] share what they see in the Parliament, they are honest with the people,” Alina chipped in.
With four years until the next slated elections, the USR must keep momentum.
It is battling external challenges from the PSD that are positively Trumpesque, but it also has to focus on keeping the party united. It is open to defectors, but wary of adopting some of their unbecoming traits. Further, in order to grow, the USR must expand its manifesto beyond environmentalism and corruption. It needs to win the vote of those under the sway of the state media. Its message needs to reach beyond the educated middle-class urbanites. The party must take on soaring poverty rates, inadequate health-care standards, the brain drain, apathy. No mean feat.
Zainea was acutely aware of all of this when he began his career in politics. He was under no illusion that the party could simply stroll to power. And yet he was determined to make change happen in Romania; so determined that he took the gamble of a career change and spent his life’s savings on the campaign that got him elected to party deputy.
Though the tide of demonstrators in Victory Square has ebbed, a youthful public eye holds a steady gaze over the government’s comings and goings, aided by the transparency efforts of the USR and Rezist. Both factions now must have faith that, when the time is right, those half a million people who filled the streets to shout down the PSD won’t only protest, but also vote.
Until then, the USR has to get itself ready to expose the robber the second they catch them in the act again.