Human Interest International Politics United States

Romania’s Lesson In Political Protest

Sometimes, protests do make a difference.

Alina Ryzhonkova

Naked Politics Blogger 

The past year has been politically turbulent and divisive, leaving many wondering if the promise of democracy and the European project in particular were nothing more than wishful, post-war thinking. Between Brexit, Trump, terrorism and the immigration crisis it’s really no wonder that politics is leaving everyone fed up and exhausted. Add to that the rising tide of nationalism in Europe and renewed uncertainty over Greece and the EU looks ready to unravel in 2017. However, amid the endless barrage of political scandals, Romania stands out as a shining beacon of hope.

Romania’s story of promise going back to the fall of communism in Europe. In 1989 a protest in the Western-Romanian city of Timisoara set off a chain of events that first saw thousands of people take to the streets of Romania and then saw the communist regime toppled when Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed. Since then Romania, much like its former-Eastern Bloc neighbours, has done its best to shed its communist past and embrace democracy. Romania’s efforts have seen it admitted to the EU and NATO, however corruption has continued to plague the country.

Corruption issues delayed Romania’s membership of the EU and required the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification to be put in place to monitor its anti-corruption progress. The fight against corruption in Romania has been slow, but fairly steady, especially as the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) has gained traction in holding officials accountable. However,  on the 31st of January the government passed a decree that would have undone years of progress by essentially decriminalising official corruption. But they had underestimated the hope and promise of the democratic transparency that had brought people out onto the streets of Romania in 1989, and has stayed alive since then.

Once again, thousands of people flooded the streets in protest of the decree and stayed there until the government listened. Braving snow and strong winds, Romanians took to the streets in an attempt to hold their government accountable when their institutions failed to do so. And they succeeded. After days of widespread protest, the people of one of the poorest, most corruptcountries in the EU stood up for their values and held their government accountable.

What is even more remarkable about the protests in Romania is that they didn’t stop when the decree was repealed, nor did they stop when the Justice Minister, Florin Iordache, resigned. The protests have continued, forcing the government to schedule a referendum on fighting official corruption and showing the government that any regression will not be tolerated. At a time when even getting a government to repeal a controversial decree would be considered a victory, the Romanian people are fighting for more and refusing to settle. That is worth celebrating.

We should be celebrating Romania’s success, but also learning from it. Over the past year, but especially since Trump took office, protests have become ubiquitous, but in the Western world they have had little effect on policy. Protests, such as the Women’s March, gained widespread media coverage and certainly sent a strong message. But at the end of the day, no concrete goals were achieved by the march. Protests that have gained much less international coverage, like the ones in Romania and the ones that have led to the impeachment of the South Korean president have brought about real, political change in countries that are not often seen to be democratic role models.

One of the things that these successful protests have in common is their promotion of hope. Successful protests frame their actions and their demands in terms of hope and a better future, rather than in terms of fear. The protesters in Romania criticised their government and called for resignations, but ultimately it was a protest for a fairer, more democratic government. In that vein, the protests targeted a specific issue that could be resolved – start small and build on it. Will Romania suddenly become the world’s least corrupt nation? No. But it made an important step in that direction and showed everyone that regression is not an option, so it will keep on building on this success. Another defining feature of successful protests is that they are protests, rather than a single protest. The people kept fighting until they saw results. They kept the pressure on the government until the government could no longer ignore it.

Of course, context is everything. What worked in Romania, may not work in the US, what worked in South Korea, may not work in the UK. But if similar things worked in Romania and in South Korea, they may just work somewhere else. We won’t know though, unless we pay attention to what happens in the rest of the world. Global powers tend to dominate the news, a terrorist attack in the heart of Paris will garner 24 hour coverage from the scene, while a terrorist attack in the heart of Lahore will be lucky to make it to page four, let alone the cover page. All that does is create yet another echo chamber in a world of echo chambers. What we need to do is look beyond those echo chambers. Scientists have shown that diversity leads to innovation and better solutions, so if we want to succeed in a time of political turmoil, what better way to embrace diversity than by paying attention to political successes around the world?

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