‘The anti-corruption protests have turned the inhabitants of Romania into a whole new generation of alert citizens’

CIVICUS speaks to Viorel Micescu, Executive Director of CENTRAS: The Assistance for Non-Governmental Organizations, an independent non-profit organisation aimed at contributing to the development of democracy in Romania through the strengthening of civil society. Established in 1995, CENTRAS provides training, technical assistance and informational support to communities, civil society organisations (CSOs), businesses and governments interested in civil society and democracy development. CENTRAS has a branch in Constanta (the third largest county in Romania) and supports a network of regional resource centres.

  1. What triggered the protests that took place in Romania in early 2017, and how would you describe them?

In January 2017, a new government came into office. It had been elected on a series of financial promises but instead, the first thing they did was pass legislation to amend the Criminal Code and decriminalise certain acts of corruption. This was intended to create much better conditions for politicians who had been involved in corruption to get away with it, thereby effectively slowing down the ongoing fight against corruption. The Ministry of Justice tried to pass this legislation through an emergency decree. Upon becoming aware of these plans, in mid-January 2017, citizens active on social media organised two marches to put pressure on the government. As a result, the president intervened to have the government drop this piece of legislation. However, the law was subsequently adopted by surprise in the middle of the night on 31 January 2017.

As soon as the word spread that the government had done this despite public protests, people were back on the streets. First the government ignored them but later, as numbers grew and the protest in front of the government building went on day after day, it was forced to withdraw the emergency legislation. These were the biggest protests in decades. At some point, it was estimated that half a million people took to the streets, including more than 200,000 in the capital, Bucharest. The protests were mostly peaceful, although clashes periodically erupted between police and protesters. When demonstrators threw objects at the police, officers responded with tear gas. In the aftermath of one clash in Bucharest, 20 people were arrested and eight were injured.

Within 10 days of the protests, the government had backed down. But this didn’t stop the demonstrations, because people kept expressing their anger and frustration with the undemocratic way in which the decree had been initially pushed through and passed, and were now demanding that the government step down. Government officials refused to resign; however, they did give up on the emergency decree and eventually the Minister of Justice, Florin Iordache, was forced to resign. A non-partisan personality from academia was appointed as his replacement.

However, the former Minister of Justice, who as the author of the controversial decree that would have protected politicians from prosecution for corruption offences had been at the centre of the story, ended up occupying a high position in parliament. In October 2017 Iordache was appointed president of the parliamentary committee for ensuring legislative stability in the field of justice. So in the end, the struggle moved from government to parliament. The government backed off but members of parliament still defied public outrage. Several months after the facts, people occupied the square in front of the government building in Bucharest.

  1. Did your organisation play any role in supporting the protests?

We are, above all, a resource centre for civil society development. In view of the ongoing events, since February 2017 we provided support to informal groups of citizens who organised on Facebook and other social media. As a result, there are now three large communities that are very active and exist not only on Facebook but also in the form of organised offline structures. They are monitoring closely what is happening. We estimate that between 50,000 and 80,000 citizens are involved in these groups.

Many people who took part in the protests had not been involved in civil society or political action before. As a result of the government’s actions in January and February 2017, a lot of people who were living within a narrow private triangle – work, family, vacation - suddenly became engaged citizens.

It suddenly became obvious for everybody that there was a huge gap between the people and the so-called political class. CSOs were out in the streets and the square as well. In this context, the reasonable thing for us to do in order to collect and disseminate credible information was to reach out to mobilised people. So once the ways in which the protest movement was being fuelled through social media became apparent, and those groups started gaining prominence and leading the events, we got in touch. The whole idea was to explain to the people out there that it is not enough to be a ‘protest citizen’ and only get out to the streets when something really bad happens. You must undertake civic work every day on top of your job and family obligations.

Protesters were mostly people who came from educated backgrounds and hold good jobs, and who also want the social and political environment to improve so they can enjoy life. The wishes and expectations of citizens who want a better life cannot really be fulfilled just by marching on the streets. From the streets you can stop a legislative initiative but you can’t interact sustainably with the government. We tried to make clear to these people that this would be not be the ultimate war against corruption, and that much more would be required to win. The people in the protests needed to organise for the long haul, and they had to do it quickly or otherwise it would be difficult to mobilise people again when a new backlash took place.

We realised that these active citizens with enough financial resources are the most likely to support the civil society sector. So along with one of the protest groups, in March 2017 we launched a small fund, which we named the Fund for Democracy, backed by donations from Romanians living in and outside Romania. We told people who cared about strengthening civil society that they could achieve this aim by putting money into the fund, which we would coordinate. Within a week we gathered €22,000 (approx. US$27,000), all of it in private donations transferred through the banking system. We initially received recurring donations only from selected donors, but we will eventually widen our base of support by going public. We make sure donations are managed properly by isolating projects from the rest of the organisation and having a separate board make decisions about them.

Once we got the funds, we launched a call for ideas on social media and funded eight civic projects. These are all centred on the idea of civic values and range from education to civic involvement and monitoring good governance, and they are open not only to formal CSOs but also to informal groups of citizens and investigative journalists. All of this is happening at a time when there is a huge funding gap at the international level, and there is virtually no money for civic-minded civil society.

  1. Did protesters also gather in CSOs after demonstrations ended?

Protesters did not have an actual leadership; only those who started the Facebook page had some kind of organisation, and most were doing their organising in addition to their day jobs. This would not have been sustainable, and in fact about a month and a half into the process some of those people started talking to each other and some groups merged as they became aware that they had to specialise. In this process, they acquired some kind of structure with an executive leader, with some kind of division into areas of work and task forces. Organisations emerged that dealt not just with corruption and governance issues, but also with health, education and the environment, among other issues.

Lots of people in the CSO community tried to provide protesters with information on how to get organised. The whole point was to help them get organised on their own by equipping them with the capacities to build the organisations that were best adapted to their needs. These were large emerging masses of people who were just starting to feel and behave as citizens, and persuading them to fit into existing structures was by no means the best available solution.

Many of these new organisations are still not registered as CSOs. The largest groups will surely eventually register, but not in the short term: this takes a lot of time, and registering an organisation with tens of thousands of members is complicated. Most importantly, we know that politicians have only just given us a break, and we have not won for good. The battle is ongoing, and nobody has much time for bureaucratic procedures. Every day we must produce, process and disseminate new information – so much of it, that it is difficult to keep up. Nobody really has much time to do anything else.

  1. Did the government make any changes in terms of its anti-corruption policies in the aftermath of the protests?

In April 2017, the government responded to requests from the European Union (EU), the USA and other actors, to analyse the legislation properly, including through debates and consultations with judges and magistrates. In doing this, the government took the slow road; however, the results of the inquiry were unsatisfactory to party and government leaders because they showed that practitioners didn’t want the legislation softened in any way.

Regarding pardoning prerogatives, for instance, the only consensus that exists in the judiciary is that they should not apply to people convicted in corruption cases. The majority believe that allowing public officials imprisoned for bribery, official misconduct, conflict of interest or influence trafficking to benefit from pardons would introduce the wrong incentives into our judicial system. So many people, including justice officials, now have the feeling that their own government has betrayed them.

In June 2017, the government lost the support of the ruling party for failing to respond to their political urges to slow down anti-corruption reforms. The government collapsed but the Prime Minister refused to resign. In August, the Justice Minister proposed new reforms that, according to critics, would undermine not just the fight against corruption but also the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. In other words, this took us back to square one – or almost.

As a result of the turmoil of February and March 2017, the ruling party now has big internal problems. However, elections have passed in 2016, and politicians managed to get through them by bribing people – by promising, for instance, to raise their salaries by 50 per cent. Their next encounter with voters is years away. In the meantime, the leaders of both houses of parliament are under criminal investigation on corruption charges, and will be convicted unless they manage to change the legislation. Many other members of parliament are in trouble as well, as they face various corruption charges. So all of them want a more favourable legislation, and in particular they rely on the introduction of pardoning prerogatives for corruption cases.

So in November 2017, nine months after the first protests, Romanians again protested against proposed legislative changes and to remind the government that they remained vigilant in case there was any attempt to slow down the fight against corruption.

More recently, on 15 January 2018, the ruling coalition forced yet another government, including the Prime Minister, to resign – mainly based on accusations that they have not done enough to pass the desired modifications to laws on justice – so citizen groups summoned a massive protest in Bucharest for 20 January 2018. So it seems that a political crisis is under way, and street mobilisation will continue. It shall be another busy winter for the citizens of Romania, as the 'criminal interest group' has managed to hold on to power in the ruling party, albeit their position is being seriously weakened.

  1. What has been the role of the international community throughout this process, and how could international civil society support Romanian civil society to fulfil its role?

In Romania, when the government gets on the wrong track, the international reaction is usually sufficient to set it straight. But this time it has been different. There was a majority parliament, and the EU and USA have been immersed in their own problems, and couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene immediately. That’s why it’s so good that people got out to the streets and protested. This caught the attention of the international public and allowed for a bigger reaction. But the fact that this reaction eventually took place was important – protesters in the streets would not have sufficed.

The whole process was self-reinforcing. People invested lots of energy and creativity in the protests. They used humour, created witty slogans and memes and repurposed symbols of pop culture. This allowed them to win over the hearts of the international media, who saw everyday Romanians get out in the cold weather after work, stay there for hours into the night and exhibit all that creativity. I remember meeting a number of journalists from big international TV stations and other global media outlets one of those days, quite late in the evening, in a small café by the square. They commented that they were impressed by the vividness of the protest and by protesters’ ability to respond to questions in several languages while displaying their slogans. As a result, they provided extensive and positive coverage of the events in the international media, which put pressure on European politicians to do something about it, and therefore for European countries to react strongly, which they did.

Romanian civil society is not yet mature; it needs international support and is very pleased when its efforts are acknowledged – it gets all the more energy when its actions get wide international coverage. In that sense, the visit of a delegation of the European Parliament in March 2017 was particularly significant. The visitors met with protest group leaders, lots of journalists wrote about them and the world discovered that Romanian citizens want good governance, hold European values and support anti-corruption efforts. Whenever someone writes and publishes something along these lines it is news for the Facebook community, and it gives civil society increasing strength.

  1. What impact do you think the protests might have on future citizen participation in Romania?

CSOs like ours have spent a quarter of a century trying to make citizens out of the inhabitants of Romania, with relatively little success. It was as a result of the recent protests that we regained hope. We now have a whole new generation of alert citizens. Politics has become one of the most likely subjects of everyday conversation. Debates and forums are being organised to channel all these energies, because people have not been in the business of practising civic values for a long time, and they are just learning how to participate, how to form and express an opinion, how to interpret political events.

In normal times, a typical protest against some form of government abuse would gather a few hundred people. Sometimes, environmental organisations would manage to summon around 10,000 people, but in February 2017, close to 600,000 came out from all over Romania on a single night. Most importantly, the protest reached places like small cities and towns, where there had never been protests before.

Eastern Europe does not have a big protest tradition, and these were by far the largest protests ever experienced in this part of the world. Additionally, protests against corruption and in favour of European values mean a lot more in times of uncertainty, after the Brexit vote and the progress made by the extreme right in the Dutch and French elections. These protests gave a message of unity around European values, and in that sense they can be viewed as model protests for the times to come.

These are fascinating times. On one hand, never before have we had politicians who are so mean and selfish, and of such little human and professional quality. On the other hand, there is now a large mass of new people entering the civic arena, getting ready to monitor the government and eventually to help educate politicians. Politicians will be educated only if citizens educate themselves first: there is a need for millions more to wake up and understand that there is another way of living their life.

  1. What challenges do you see moving forward?

Most importantly, our anti-corruption struggle is ongoing. Despite daily public protests in front of the parliament, new laws on judicial organisation were passed in December 2017 and submitted to the president for approval. The president could veto them, but the ruling parties have a sufficient majority to override the veto. The adoption process was marred by abuses and lack of consultation, which was not surprising, given that the parliamentary committee that drafted them was led by the same former Minister who started the fire in January 2017. These pieces of legislation as well as their adoption process will surely come under the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court in the following months.

Additionally, the same parliamentary committee is now getting ready to amend the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedures Code. This is the big stake for politicians; if passed, these amendments will make even the emergency decree passed in January 2017 look soft.

Still, public support for the ruling party has not gone down enough. To keep popular support, the government keeps trying to deliver on their promise to double salaries, although this is not sustainable, as it would create a huge pressure on public finances.

CSOs are also being the target of restrictive legislation. It will not be as bad here as it has been in neighbouring Hungary, but the political majority is moving along the same lines. A smear campaign against CSOs is ongoing, and it is being repeatedly insinuated that CSOs have a hidden interest in destabilising the country. In June 2017, a draft bill was proposed to allow for the forced closure of any CSO that does not publish reports of its revenues and expenses, as well as the names of all of its donors, twice a year. This is an arbitrary burden, much more demanding than that applied to other sectors, meant to increase political control over civil society. Although the bill was put on hold for the summer due to the negative public reactions it caused, it was tacitly adopted by the Senate in November 2017, and was then sent to consideration by the Chamber of Deputies. We are confident that we will be able to block it, but we also know that a new move by the government will follow to restrict civil society.

  • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Get in touch with CENTRAS through their website.