‘If citizens are not able to recognise what is going on and mobilise, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region’

The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to Stefan Cibian, president of the Federation of Non-Governmental Development Organisations of Romania (FOND) and Board member of the Romanian Association for International Cooperation and Development (ARCADIA). Founded in 2006, FOND includes some of the most important civil society organisations in the country, and currently has 33 member organisations. Since its inception, it has organised capacity-building training for its members to become more active in the field of international development cooperation, volunteering and humanitarian assistance as well as landmark events for the Romanian development community, such as the Romanian Development School and for the broader region, including the Black Sea NGO Forum.

1. How would you describe the state of democracy in Romania? Has the practice of democracy changed over the past few years?

I would describe the current state of democracy in Romania as worrying. In essence, there used to be a positive trend at the grassroots level, where individuals and communities came to life after the treacherous totalitarian regime that lasted until 1989. More recently, however, the political mood has reverted back towards the totalitarian practices of before 1989. This is unfortunately part of a broader trend, with several countries in the region being led by democratically elected leaders who are, in essence, destroying or undermining the democratic systems that brought them to power. Country after country in Central and Eastern Europe - and not only in that region - are following the same approach: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey and now Romania.

In Romania’s case the practice of democracy had improved over the past decades. The positive side includes, or rather included, a strengthened judiciary with an increasingly efficient anti-corruption agency, that until now managed to increase respect for public assets; a media landscape with some weaknesses in terms of ownership structure and politicisation, but nevertheless is free and diversified; an increasingly stronger civil society with grassroots movements that give life to broadly disempowered communities; and an increasingly empowered citizenry that expresses itself through mass protests and online, as well as through community engagement, increased donations and participating in sporting activities. This trend is made possible by a new generation shaped by access to information and technology – a generation that has partially different aims and behaves fundamentally differently from its predecessors.

Romanian democracy faces, however, challenges that are similar to those faced by many countries experiencing an externally-assisted democratisation process. Its most important weakness relates to its citizens’ capacity to fulfil their constitutional mandate. While democratic systems place power in the hands of citizens, democratisation processes to date have largely ignored the capacity of citizens to make good use of the power they possess (including the way a citizen votes, decides to be involved and holds political leaders and state institutions to account). The key problem is a lack of critical thinking and abilities to put into practice the rights offered by democratic constitutions. Understandably, if they are not able to live and practise the freedoms brought about by democracy, citizens are not going to defend their democratic system, whenever needed.

A set of other challenges relate to inherent weaknesses in the sustainability of organised civil society. Democratisation driven by donors’ assistance has not generated any sustainable organised civil society in terms of resources, nor in terms of connection to the governmental sphere, or indeed, often to local communities.

A last set of challenges relate to the party system. Rather than holding to democratic principles, the parties that emerged after the Communist period in Romania function as mechanisms to capture the state for various private or even illegal interests.

2. Is Romanian civil society currently able to fully contribute to democratic governance?

I would say it is partially able to do so. While protests have made a positive contribution over the past few years, the democratic system has been significantly altered when it comes to the relations between civil society and political parties or state institutions. With the exception of some new parties born out of civil society initiatives, relations between political parties and society are not yet embodying democratic principles. Parties attempt to control society, not to represent it, and civil society is weak in terms of organisation and its ability to articulate common interests, while keeping a distance from the main political parties. Therefore, in the way the current system works, it is unlikely that civil society will be able to contribute fully to democratic governance.

3. What triggered the anti-corruption demonstrations that took place earlier in 2017? What fuelled them, and why did they continue after the government rolled back the decree that motivated them in the first place?

There are two key aspects here: first, the dynamics were not only about corruption, but also about the type of power that is deployed along with it. Second, the word we live in is being fundamentally transformed by technology, which is creating societal needs that cannot be catered for by current organisational models. This poses fundamental challenges to the way in which our societies are organised. Whether we talk about civil society, political or business organisations, those changes are taking us towards a new world that exposes new ways of being and living.

In Romania’s case, protests have been about corruption, but they have also been about much more – a fundamental lack of trust in political parties and core institutions, which are de jure but not de facto democratic. Protests have continued for a good reason, as recent laws passed by the Romanian parliament, including new regulations on civil society organisations (CSOs), and emergency decrees issued by the Romanian government, have indicated that public institutions are being used to dismantle democracy and limit the space for civil society. Therefore, the aim is not corruption; corruption is just the means. The true aim is to hold control over society, and gaining discretionary power over resources is necessary in that regard. That is also the reason why, although the government’s reactions to citizens exercising their right to protest was soft at the beginning, there has been a growing tendency for the government to intervene to limit protests, spark violence, and then use that violence as an excuse for repression.

4. Would you say a full-fledged anti-corruption movement has emerged from the protests?

No. What this year’s mobilisations have produced is, on one hand, an increasing number of angry people, and on the other a growing number of disempowered people. Established CSOs have played a role in the protests, but up to now it has been a marginal one. Their ability to mobilise citizens, or even to coordinate amongst themselves, has remained alarmingly low.

While some connections have been established with like-minded mobilisations in other parts of the world, these have taken place mostly at an inspirational level, and for very few of those involved.

For the time being, the 2017 mobilisations have only succeeded in postponing the ruling party’s plans, which are now being rolled out through parliament. Citizen reactions, on the other hand, are now far from the strength that they had at the beginning of 2017.

This is a crucial moment for Romanian democracy. If citizens are able to recognise what is going on and they mobilise, they will be able to protect their rights and re-establish a democratic system. If they do not, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region.

  • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of some restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression
  • Get in touch with FOND through their website or Facebook page, and contact ARCADIA through their webpage, or follow @stefancibian and @FONDRomania on Twitterdemocracy