A Letter from New York: Romania’s Winter of Discontent

In January, the streets of Bucuresti, Timisoara, Cluj, Iasi and many other Romanian cities have witnessed people’s frustration, desperation, and anger directed at the political class and particularly at President Traian Basescu. Initially, it was the resignation of Dr. Raed Arafat, the country’s popular Deputy Health Minister, over plans to privatize emergency health services that sparked off the protests. But after President Basescu withdrew the privatization proposal and reinstated the Deputy Minister, protesters in large numbers continued to occupy the streets and squares of Romanian cities. In a further attempt of appeasement, Prime Minister Emil Boc fired Foreign Minster Teodor Baconschi, for his remarks about the protesters on his personal blog. Baconschi had called the protesters, or as he claims only some of them, inept and violent slum dwellers., But still, while not intimidated by blizzards, the protesters are out in the streets, waving their placards.

Protests in Bucharest, Romania, January 2012 © Vassilis Galanos/Flickr

What is behind the Romanian “winter of discontent”? The media, commentators and protesters themselves explain that they are revolting against the “political class.” Other words that are used to describe the endless rallies are “democracy,” “dictatorship” and, more often, “dignity.” Demonstrators are asking: “What does Romanian democracy mean?” They are stating that “Communism fell more than 20 years ago, but our life is no better.” Many blame the large IMF loans that the current Romanian government took to keep the economy afloat and the austerity measures that “had to be implemented.” However, there is a deeper infection, or, as one Romanian theater director and writer points out, there is a cancer, eating away at Romanian society.

The Guardian calls Romanians an apathetic nation. “Personally, I see them as perseveringly patient and hopeful for an end to the popular and yet interminable transition.” They have been patient at least until now when, as the Romanian saying goes “the blade has reached the bone.”

Growing up I was taught that Romanians have to laugh at themselves. We call it “haz de necaz,” or laughing in the face of trouble. And we have been patiently laughing at ourselves in the face of many difficulties that the transition to democracy brought after 1989. The remnants of the old regime’s under the table deals in an economy of shortages and mutual favors, combined with the current market economy that clearly differentiates between winners and losers, have created an unfavorable environment for democratic practices. Indeed, democracy cannot take root overnight, but it needs support, care and effort.

The 19th day of protests in Romania. Here protesters in Timişoara rip a poster of Romanian president Traian Băsescu © Adi Piclisan/Mediafax Photo

On the Opera House building in Timisoara the protesters placed a sign that read “We want the paradise promised when communism ended,” followed by “Down with Basescu.” I think Romanians have finally realized that their own initiative is needed to realize the old promise. Although they might not have a feasible plan yet (removing Basescu will most likely not change much) and their signs might be too nationalistic or idealistic, at least Romanians are no longer passive or simply laughing in the face of their trouble. This might explain why they did not leave the squares when the Deputy Health Minister got his job back and the President agreed to reconsider the health bill. It is to be hoped that they will not stop when Basescu leaves power, willingly or through elections.

The current President is just a small piece in the puzzle. On Christmas Day 1989, I remember watching the executions of Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu, over and over again, on our black and white TV. I asked my mother what it all meant. After explanations of democracy and freedom (which I do not recall but my mother tells me I received), she changed the tune. She explained that now I could eat oranges whenever I wanted, not only on Christmas. That made me very happy. Then she continued. She said it also meant that I would not have to be a Pioneer anymore. This broke my heart. I was looking forward to be a Pioneer, to wear the nice Red Scarf, sing the songs, and be a big girl worthy to pledge allegiance to the country in the Pioneer uniform in front of everybody. I grew up and realized that was silly of me. I was only five at the time of the Revolution and the Ceausescu couple’s execution. I did indeed see oranges after 1989, but from my mom’s teacher’s salary we only could afford to look at them in the stores. So here I am, like many of my high school friends with shiny university diplomas. We live abroad and spend our lives on Skype with family. “Down with Basescu,” they say, if only it was that easy.

Protesters in Romania wave the flag of 1989 revolutionary forces © Uknown/presa internationala

The blue, yellow and red national flags with the hole in the middle that fly over the crowds these days echo the practice during the 1989 Revolution, when people cut out the socialist emblem from the center of the flag. The emblem’s absence became the symbol of the revolution and of extirpating the old regime out of Romania(ns). The similarities between today’s protests and the 1989 Revolution are, I think, more than symbolic. Many of the current dysfunctions are caused by leftover practices and practitioners from the old regime. They were left unquestioned or were simply ossified in our (un)consciousness. Of course, the billions of euros in IMF loans, growing poverty, and the austerity measures have indeed fueled the discontent. But this time, it seems to me, it is not only about the price of bread.

Romanians want democracy, in the real sense of the word. The protesters assert their desire for dignity, for being recognized, respected and treated with human dignity by those who represent them and those who make the laws that affect their lives. They feel cheated by a corrupt system that favors only those who are good at stealing and faking it.

Back on that day in 1989, after a quick trial, the Ceausescus were shot dead by those who called themselves liberators. Twenty- three years later, Romanians are still waiting for the happy beginning of a new, free and democratic life. Shooting Basescu won’t do. Impeaching the whole political class might do something, but not enough. People need to realize that they are the ones who need to make the effort to build the promised paradise. It might be easy for me to ask them from afar to sacrifice their time, dreams and maybe their entire lives to build something that they possibly will never get to enjoy. The media is already speculating that our winter of discontent, may bring in a new center-left government but no end to the austerity measures. Yet, I sense something greater is happening in those squares and streets: a conscious defrosting of the political and social senses of a patient people, who have reached the end of their indulgence in passive hope.

By Elisabeta Pop
Democracy & Diversity Wroclaw 2011 alumna

Originally published in Deliberately Considered at http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com/2012/02/romanias-winter-of-discontent

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