Do Not (Always) Fear When Democracy Takes to the Streets

15. 3. 2017

The recent political developments in Romania could be a lesson in the dynamics of EU democracy at a time when the EU is struggling with new nationalisms and democratic deficit—if the EU is not too busy with eurozone stability, to the detriment of quality of governance.

For all its questionable record in anticorruption and rule of law, Romania had been a predictable and comfortable partner, internally stable, (almost) always voting mainstream along a loyal Euro-Atlantic line. Last winter suddenly saw people take to the streets in protest against the government and president, the cabinet sacked and replaced with an opposition social-liberal one (USL), which immediately sought to impeach the president and overturn a number of laws.

Swift reaction from Brussels, Berlin and Washington, heeding president Traian Băsescu’s “coup d’état” accusations, put pressure on the government to refrain from doing so. It also forced a 50% + 1 turnout threshold to validate referendum results, at the height of the summer season, which has kept the president in place, despite a hugely unfavorable vote (7.5m to 1m in favor of his demise). National elections in the summer have returned an overwhelming USL majority to parliament and paved the way for cohabitation—president Băsescu and prime minister Victor Ponta have signed a non-aggression pact and it is likely that the need to focus on the struggling economy and patching up Romania’s reputation abroad will keep the daggers from being drawn again soon. Good news for EU partners who fret about the possibility that Romania could join neighbor Hungary in backtracking on democratic standards and causing yet more headaches to an already ailing Union.

The short term benefits of stability are clear. It is becoming equally clear that young democracies may still need an occasional hand from EU partners. However, basing such intervention on superficial judgment or nervousness about potential “instability” and ignoring the popular mood may have unwanted side-effects and be counterproductive to democracy itself— as well as to cooperation within the EU, if this is felt to be just a big power play. Romanians will remember Ceau.escu’s desperate last call, “Please remain quietly in your places,” as an angry mob was booing him out of the presidential palace. A generally complacent and (to this day!) rather inactive populace for once did not listen—and that gave birth to democracy, as imperfect as it may still be.

EU interference this summer has generated the first anti-EU, anti-US discourse in Romania after 1989, while the country has consistently been the most favorable to the EU and NATO out of the whole Eastern bloc. Neither politicians, nor the population have shifted away from these allegiances in any way now, despite some efforts, internally and abroad, to portray it differently. Rather, as in other European countries, Romanian citizens have felt that EU politicians did not understand their plight and, eager to impose their own political and economic interests, even stopped them from democratically exercising their right to sanction bad leadership.

Post-crisis polls do not show responders turning against international organizations, but indicate growing confusion and disaffection with them. Having looked to the US and Europe as the lighthouse of hope for decades under communist isolation and having worked hard and made huge sacrifices to rejoin the West, Romanians have felt betrayed. And local politicians have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of populistic and nationalistic discourse in the run-up to elections.

Hell’s Hounds

Bucharest has faced tough criticism for its shortcomings in establishing a fair and effective justice system and combating high-level corruption. It is still under the EU Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification and has been denied access to the Schengen area. Despite some frustration with this second-class member treatment, Romanians have generally recognized their leaders’ failure in meeting Western standards and have appreciated external pressure. However, when such harsh scolding suddenly seems to stem from increasingly isolationist tendencies of an embattled eurozone which defies its self-professed democratic princi- ples (i.e. Schengen refusal because of radical elements in the Dutch parliament) and conveniently pushes new members in a corner, it becomes a revolving door hitting the ones who have opened it right back in the face. Brussels and Berlin have been felt to favor political actors who impose the toughest austerity measures, as abusively as they may otherwise behave, just to keep the EU edges stable and quiet while the center works out its problems. Washington, on the other hand, has been perceived to promote the interests of American companies (such as Chevron in shale gas).

Much of this perception was wrong. Yet the reason for it is that—unlike what reactions abroad seemed to indicate—Romania did not suffer any sudden fit of undemocratic behavior; the country had long known poor governance, political opportunism and a disconnect between political interests and those of citizens or business. The institutions which the USL government was so adamant to turn upside down had previously been politicized and subordinated to the point of dysfunctionality by president Băsescu and the Liberal-Democrat PD-L government; only they did so quietly, incrementally and surreptitiously, without disturbing EU capitals in the process. It was this extreme monopoly on power which caused an equally rabid reaction from both people and opposition—which for sure would not have stopped at less, had it not been checked by the EU.

Băsescu himself only perfected a tradition of political dominance over institutions started in 1989, in the name of “peaceful transition” and irreversible anchoring in the West. Political parties, which have smoothly integrated elements of the former regime in order to ensure “continuity and stability,” have been at each other’s throats on occasion, gone after each other with corruption investigations when they had the chance, but have never crossed the line: no major confiscation of assets, no major conviction for the “big fish.” Until last year when former prime-minister Adrian Nastase was given jail time, breaking this taboo, after a much-televised and drawn-out inquiry, seen by some as “selective justice.” That set off all hell’s hounds, who were counting the days until Băsescu would be out of office and tried for high-level corruption himself.

Street protests (not so much against austerity measures alone, as against extreme government corruption) and political warfare held the promise of finally unsettling a universally endorsed regime of corrupt practices across party lines and exposing its main protagonists. It all depended on whether the two main combatant sides would continue to escalate the conflict or would soon realize it was to their benefit to make peace before both suffered major losses. In fact, the post-election political situation reflects the uneasy peace which both sides have been quick to make—which is potentially more dangerous for the quality of democracy than the recent feud was.

The USL coalition, though at a comfortable 60%, is under close scrutiny by the EU and hard pressed to deliver on promises to an electorate which has not in fact credited it with 60% trust, but has simply given a strong negative vote to Băsescu and the PD-L. The opposition is represented by the former PD-L rebranded as the Alliance for the Right Romania (ARD) whose “rising star” newcomer candidates called to improve its image have scored ridiculously low, while its former apparatchiks are seriously compromised by past performance. Parliament’s new entry, the fringe PP-DD (Dan Diaconescu People’s Party), is a populistic party named after its founder, a TV showman who made a fortune starting his own trash television and blackmailing his way into power and money. Exposure and dissatisfaction with the entire political class brought his party a good 14% of votes, despite having no agenda and no ideology.

That leaves a barely legitimate Băsescu as the only opposition. An inauspicious situation, since this only continues the intense personalization of politics. Both sides may try to use justice and intelligence services (which may, however, strengthen their independence!), while both will also have to deal with low international credibility and both know any decisive victory over the other spells revenge. That seems to indicate a period of stability and “truce,” as both sides recover strength, until sometime before presidential elections in mid-2014, when every rearrangement is conceivable. Calm waters may just be hiding at this point the collusion in fraud and redistribution of profits which is customary with every alternation in power.

Misplaced Fingerpointing

And yet this situation of low legitimacy across the board, media polarization, a fledgling economy and high popular dissatisfaction holds an unexpected promise: That citizens, who have taken to the streets and have brought down a government, whose votes were cast against the president and then ignored, whose living standards have fallen because of the economic crisis and government incompetence, will keep a close eye on the performance of their elected ones and be much quicker in reacting and associating to make their voices heard than before.

This, Western partners should take note of. People in the streets are not always a bad thing. It can be part of the growing up process of a young democracy, where civil society, never strong enough till now, is learning to use its voice. In the long run, it will hopefully pressure politics and institutions to improve. Even the critique of the EU/US is a healthy sign that there may finally be debate around crucial matters and national interest—discouraged so far, in the name of much needed Westernization. It has indeed helped the country make its strategic pro-Western choice, but that process is now well under way if not even fully completed. The horrors of Eastern bloc appurtenance is still so vividly present in every mind, that no political actor or group will shift an inch away from the West (if anything, some easing on Russophobia wouldn’t hurt!). At a time when eurozone integration seems to be leaving Central European members in a peripheral grey area, Bucharest will keep pressing hard to remain as closely linked to core Europe as possible, as well as to the US as its main security guarantor. This means Schengen and Eurozone membership will be top priorities, as well as keeping commitments in Afghanistan, missile defense, supporting enlargement in the region, strategic partnerships with Poland and Turkey, etc.

Of course recent events have fed those Western countries, which are becoming more “protectionist,” a wealth of arguments to keep Romania at arm’s length. Yet misplaced fingerpointing at the country as “unruly,” “undemocratic,” etc., or allowing EU institutions to be drawn into domestic power battles can only break trust and disrupt further genuine democratization. And democratization is a process where the EU is still, in its own member states, old or new, as well as in its neighborhood, the main driver of positive change. And in a staunchly pro-Western country, this is a process that eventually can only lead to consolidated Euro-Atlanticism.

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