On the 30th of October 2015, a deadly fire in Colectiv Nightclub sparked mass protests in Romania. The tragic incident could have been prevented if it were not for the three owners’ failure to comply with Romania’s safety regulations. This led to suspicions that the club had obtained its permit by bribing local politicians.¹ Corruption may have always been an issue in Romania, but it is a first in Romanian history that corruption has known a death toll of 38 people. Last Tuesday, on the 3rd of November, more than 20,000 citizens marched the streets of Bucharest. Whilst shouting “assassins”, they waved Romanian flags – some with holes in them, a reference to the revolution against dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.² So what is going on precisely? We interviewed 27 year old Iulian Bulai, member of the Romanian think-tank The CAESAR Foundation (The Center for Accessing the Expertise of Students and Alumni from Romania).³ In this interview, he sketched the context of the protest and gave us his perspective on Romania’s current situation and possible solutions.
Bulai is proud of the Romanian citizens. Proud that 26 years after the Revolution4, they are once again trying to change a system that has failed them. But why did it take a fire and several casualties to get the people on the streets again? “It would have been different if politicians had taken their responsibility. The mayor of the municipality where the fire started, should have stepped down voluntarily. Then these protests would not have begun or would have been a lot smaller. Instead, the government once again tried to hide the corruption. This is exactly what the people of Romania are fed up with: lies, cover ups and more corruption.”
“This is exactly what the people of Romania are fed up with: lies, cover ups and more corruption.”
Referring to earlier protests, Iulian Bulai explains that feelings of discontent and frustrations have known outbursts before. “Last year, the Romanian expats expressed their dissatisfaction towards Victor Ponta and his government because they weren’t allowed to vote in the presidential elections.5 They stormed the embassies and organised protests in order to regain and exercise their right to vote. All of this happened with the support of voters back home and the outcome was a new president elected by the people. Unlike Victor Ponta, the people perceived Klaus Iohannis as trustworthy, which is probably why he was elected President.” Bulai also spoke about the protest against the gold and silver mining project by Roșia Montană Gold Corporation and the Canadian Gabriel Resources. This project was eventually shut down, precisely because of collective actions.6 He further stated that such protests are proof that the people of Romania, mostly young adults, are increasingly interested in changing the political system – and are actually gathering to make it happen.
To support this growing movement, the CAESAR Foundation launched its project ‘i74’ in October. This citizens’ initiative is specifically aimed at reforming the Parliament of Romania. It seeks more transparency on both voting in Parliament and the expenditures made by elected Members of Parliament (MPs). Furthermore, it calls for more responsibility in carrying out their mandate, for example by penalizing absenteeism.7 The extensive immunity (and impunity) of MPs is another issue CAESAR wants to address. “MPs can only be sent to trial if the other MPs hold vote against them, but that doesn’t happen. It’s often the same people protecting each other and not taking responsibility”, Bulai said. CAESAR therefore proposed to only allow experts with no convictions to hold a seat.
Iulian Bulai does believe that other things should happen as well. “The established parties are no longer to be trusted and now it is time to create new political parties to challenge the existing ones.” In his eyes, the few politicians that had fought against corruption, were unsuccessful because no specific alternatives were formulated. “They did not fight for anything. Instead, new parties can succeed in doing just that by pushing for new ideas and people in politics.”
The few politicians that had fought against corruption, were unsuccessful because no specific alternatives were formulated.
Already under pressure due to a corruption investigation, Prime Minister Victor Ponta had no choice but to resign as a consequence of the current protests. In the meantime, Education Minister Sorin Cimpeanu has been appointed interim Prime Minister. Surprisingly, Bulai does not want to see early elections as a result of Ponta’s resignation. “Such a situation would only benefit the existing parties, the opposition in particular. This would result in more of the same.” Instead, he pleads to carry on until December 2016. “One year is enough for new parties to gain a following, while two months would be insufficient. New parties should be given enough time to establish themselves as viable alternatives.” When asked why protestors are still asking for early elections, Bulai answers that this is the result of the opposition infiltrating the thoughts of those who are easily manipulated.
He is not entirely negative about the current situation. “I have to say that the president has taken positive action by extending his hand to civil society.” President Klaus Iohannis supported the protestors and approved of Ponta’s decision to step down.8 On Friday, Klaus Iohannis invited NGO representatives and said that he depends on civil society to understand what “the street’s” grievances are. “It might not seem like much, but to us this is incredibly exciting! Seeing how the Constitution does not include any provisions on citizen participation, this is not only one step closer to reform, but also a historical act as a Romanian president.” Bulai also referred to the president’s awareness of the corruption inside his party, which might explain why the President felt the need to depend on the Romanian people directly.
“Our grandparents fought in the Second World War, our parents fought in the Revolution and now it is our generation that fights against corruption.”
Building on such achievements, Bulai thinks that the future of Romania may finally look brighter. “There are many opportunities and we need to grasp them together. Our grandparents fought in the Second World War, our parents fought in the Revolution and now it is our generation that fights against corruption. The people in Romania ask Romanians who live abroad to come home and help us. We will reform the country, as Romania is ready for the growth it deserves.”