How repression is fueling Romania’s anti-corruption movement

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It was supposed to be just another day of protest against the corrupt government of Romania’s Social Democrats and the head of the party, Liviu Dragnea. But on Aug. 10, tens of thousands of Romanians who gathered in Bucharest’s Victory Square, were gassed, shot at and severely beaten by the riot police, leaving hundreds of people wounded and thousands more traumatized. The experience shocked an entire country, generating widespread support for the #rezist movement, and fueling activists’ passions and resolve to continue the struggle.

Dragnea is a member of parliament, but also a convicted felon on corruption charges. He came to absolute power through the 2016 parliamentary elections, when the party won a sufficient number of seats to form a stable and powerful majority alongside the Alliance of Liberal Democrats and the Magyar Democratic Union of Romania.

Since the elections, the single and most important ambition of the ruling party has been to wage a direct and merciless war on the Romanian judicial system. It began with an attack on the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, or DNA, an institution that was cutting down prominent members from all political parties, but especially those from the Social Democrats.

To achieve this, Dragnea went through two prime ministers since 2016, Sorin Grindeanu and Mihai Tudose, hoping to find the perfect lackey to run the government on his command. He finally found his puppet in current Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, thus making sure that he had silenced dissent, even critical voices within his own party.

The first spark

Dragnea’s first attempt at “reforming the judicial system” was to change the articles in the penal code related to corruption charges, making them looser and easier to get around. He did this through one of his ministers in the government, Florin Iordache, who wanted to impose the changes through a government ordinance in January 2017.

This was the moment when many decided they could not take it anymore and Corupția Ucide, or Corruption Kills, gained notoriety. They launched several protest calls on Facebook and when tensions peaked, more than 500,000 people flooded Victory Square to show the government that they were not going to support this decision. Protesters did manage to achieve a small victory by forcing the government to back down and not pursue the ordinance.

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Between this mobilization and August 2018 there were many smaller protests, with some protesters staying in the streets for days on end in an effort to keep public attention on the issue. The hashtag #rezist became the symbol of this new civic movement. This was the war cry of all those who opposed the government, Social Democrats and corruption in all its forms.

Civic groups like those involved with Corruption Kills and smaller parties like the Save Romania Union, which has seats in parliament, and others seeking to become parties — like Romania Together, the Romania 100 Platform or Demos — have been mobilizing people around the issue.

The climax

Aug. 10 did not have any symbolic significance. It was chosen more as a tactical move on behalf of the organizers, who were hoping to convince Romanians working abroad to come back to Romania to help fight this ongoing corruption battle. Knowing that the majority of Romanians who work abroad travel home for vacation in the summertime, their call insisted that unity in action will help put more pressure on authorities. #Rezist groups formed in Romanian communities in countries like Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom, and they joined the protest.

On the day of the protest, the situation was already tense, as authorities were showing no signs of backing down in their assault on judicial institutions. Laura Codruța Kovesi, the head of the DNA and a key figure in the fight against corruption, had been forced to resign just a few weeks earlier.

Although there were numerous calls on social media for the protest to maintain nonviolent discipline, small groups of protesters attacked the police with stones and other objects. While these groups were limited in number and insignificant in size compared to the wider protest at Victory Square, they gave police an excuse to disperse the crowd with force. They fired rubber grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas, and detained and beat protesters without assessing if they were violent or not.

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The toll was great and reminded people of the harrowing 2012 anti-austerity reforms protests. Hundreds were injured, and more than 700 filed complaints against the riot police for violent conduct and abuse of power. These complaints are currently being used in an ongoing investigation against the heads of the police and the city’s prefect — the political representative of the government — who are responsible for the way the ground forces intervened during the protest. Prosecutors are still trying to declassify all the orders given on that day, but they have already announced numerous charges and said that the Military Tribunal will bring to justice those who were involved in the events.

It is uncertain how things will end, but with Social Democrats’ approval rating falling by the day, they will be forced to take action and make concessions if they want to perform well in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in 2019. In the meantime, the civic opposition on the streets is further organizing itself in order to continue its fight against endemic corruption.

Corupția Ucide went from online to offline by opening up an activist hub in Bucharest to help citizens organize future protests. Workshops on civic engagement, nonviolent tactics and legal rights for protesters are being held for those who wish to become more active in the movement. Also the hub is a much needed space for people to get together face-to-face in order to build trust and debate how the #rezist movement should proceed.

The Save Romania Union has been using its seats in parliament to expose the dirty practices the Social Democrats are using to further their illiberal agenda. They have also managed to gather a million signatures — with the help of platforms like Romania Together and Romania 100 Platform — in a campaign called “No convicts in public offices.” Its goal is a referendum to change the constitution to restrict convicted felons from running for public office. Demos, on the other hand, has been gathering its members and sympathizers to become a political party, which they hope will become the left-wing political alternative to the Social Democrats in future elections.

This entire struggle has polarized Romanian society, and the struggle is by no means over. It is unlikely that either side will back down, but Romania’s path toward a real democracy will be forged by the anti-corruption struggles.

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