Romania: Protests Continue After Leftist Government Uses Violence Against Opposition Demonstration

On 10 August hundreds were injured in Bucharest when the authorities used violence against an anti-government protest. This move may, however, rebound on the leftist government as it produces a strengthened opposition, and an on-going anti-corruption protest movement.
Violence on Victory Square: On 10 August the protestors had begun to gather on Victory Square in central Bucharest from early in the morning. A few enthusiastic individuals had even arrived the previous evening. The numbers of demonstrators on the square increased as the protest’s official early afternoon start approached. The gendarmerie also deployed in force at an early stage in the day. Large numbers of riot police had been drafted into the capital from the provinces.

The rally began with the protestors outlining their demands which included an end to the government’s efforts to curtail the anti-corruption fight, the resignation of the PSD led government, and the holding of early elections. At around 4:00 pm clashes broke out between the police and a small group of people who were seeking to advance towards the government buildings. The police repelled the group using tear gas. By early evening the number of protestors had increased to around 100,000. Shortly after 9:00 pm renewed fighting broke out between the police and groups of prople on the fringes of the rally. This appeared to act as a trigger for the gendarmerie to fire tear gas into parts of the crowd which were entirely peaceful. They continued to fire tear gas into the rally in spite of pleas for them to stop as there were children in the crowd. At 11:00 pm the gendarmerie moved to clear the square. Protestors were beaten, more tear gas was used, and water canon deployed. The operation took around two hours to complete. By the end of the day 452 demonstrators and 11gendarmes had been injured. Bucharest had not witnessed a similar level of political violence since the dark days of the 1990s, when the miners of the Jiu valley had made their forays into the capital, or the revolution of December 1989. Curiously although the police had managed to injure 452 demonstrators they had failed to make a single arrest.

The Diaspora Come Home: The initiative for the 10 August demonstration began amongst the Romanian Diaspora in Europe. There are around 3.5 million Romanian expatriates living and working outside of the country. In political terms they are generally aligned with the centre-right opposition, and against the left-wing Social Democrats. It was proposed that Romanian expatriates from across Europe should return to their home country to demonstrate their opposition to the policies of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) led government. and in particular its attempts to derail the anti-corruption effort. In its early stages the initiative was organised by the Federation of Romanians Everywhere, a Brussels based NGO. The movement gained traction on-line. As the expatriates travelled back towards Romania they charted their journeys on the internet. Video clips of Romanian cars waiting in line at Dover went viral. When some expatriates travelling by car arrived in western Romanian towns they were met by local residents who lined the roads waving flags and banners denouncing the governing PSD. On the day of the rally the returning expatriates were joined by opposition supporters from across Romania. The official government position, however, remained that they were unconcerned by the protest. One PSD government official stated that he could not see why the expatriates would want to protest. The Romanian Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila, was away on holiday.

Muie PSD!: This movement of returning expatriates was given an unexpected boost by an incident which took place on 30 July. Razvan Stefanescu, an expatriate living in Sweden, had returned to Romania. The personalised number plate on his car had the letters MUIE PSD. Unbeknownst tp the Swedish authorities from whom he had acquired the number plate in Romanian this meant ‘Fuck the PSD.’ On arriving at the border no objection was raised to his number plate, and he was able to cross the frontier into Romania. Subsequently, however, a sharp eyed Romanian policeman noticed that he was driving a car with a number plate which was insulting to the ruling party. The police then confiscated his number plates and driving licence. The police were, however, filmed whilst in the act of confiscating the offending number plates. While the Romanian government and the Swedish Embassy argued over whether the number plates were legal, the footage of the police taking the number plates was circulating on-line. Muie PSD soon became the rallying cry and slogan used to mobilise people to take part in the forthcoming rally. On 10 August protestors wore t-shirts and carried banners inscribed with the message: Muie PSD.
A Struggle for Control of Romania’s Institutions: The 10 August rally took place against the background of a power struggle between the leftist PSD led by Liviu Dragnea and the centre-right President, Klaus Iohannis. Since it came to power after the parliamentary elections of December 2016 the PSD, in coalition with its junior partner the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats – ALDE, has made a determined effort to halt the on-going anti-corruption drive and take control of Romania’s legal and judicial institutions.

Liviu Dragnea is prevented from serving as Prime Minister by the fact that he has been convicted twice for corruption. He controls the government instead through a series of weak, proxy, Prime Ministers. Viorica Dancila, the current Romanian Prime Minster, is the third PSD nominee to hold that office since December 2016. During 2017 the PSD’s initial efforts to push through legal changes was thwarted by sustained popular street protests in towns across Romania.

The spring/summer of 2018, however, witnessed a renewed PSD offensive aimed at asserting control over the legal institutions. The PSD appeared to achieve a notable series of successes. They had mobilised their supporters in June for a major rally and show of strength in Bucharest. They had pushed legal changes through parliament which were considered to be detrimental to the independence of the judiciary. The PSD had also succeeded in having Laura Codruta Kovesi, the high profile head of the Anti-Corruption Directorate, removed from her position. Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian President, and the EU and US, Romania’s strategic partners had all proved unable to exert influence which would have persuaded the PSD to desist from their moves against these institutions.

The urban populace of Romania whose demonstrations had done much to block the PSD actions in 2017 were by 2018 showing signs of protest fatigue. The Diaspora movement which led to the 10 August protest, and the violence which was used against it by the authorities, appears to have done much to revitalise the formerly flagging morale and energy of the opposition.

Black Friday: The opposition reacted to the events on Victoria Square with a mixture of shock and anger. Daniel Buda, an MEP from the conservative National l Liberal Party (PNL) dubbed the events as ‘Black Friday.’ He stated that they represented a return by the PSD to their Communist roots. ‘The wolf’ he said ‘can change its hair, but not its habit.’ The PNL also appealed for information to help identify both the gendarmes who had used violence against the demonstrators and those involved in clashes with the police, who the opposition maintained were provocateurs who had infiltrated the demonstration. President Klaus Iohannis put out a statement which said: ‘I strongly condemn the brutal intervention of the gendarmerie which was disproportionate in view of the fact that most people on Victory Square were demonstrating peacefully. An attempt to defeat the will of the people through a violent reaction of the law enforcement authorities is a damning solution.’ The liberal Union to Save Romania (USR) called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila, and the Interior Minister, Carmen Dan.

‘We Will Stamp on You’: The government and the PSD initially appeared to be slower to respond to the events than the opposition. A statement put out by the Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila, condemned the ‘violent acts carried out by well organised groups who had hijacked a citizens manifestation.’ She accused the opposition of exploiting the situation for political advantage, and called on the Romanian security services (SRI) to conduct an urgent investigation in order to identify who was responsible for the violence. This call for action from the SRI was interesting in view of the fact that the PSD had spent the months prior to the demonstration accusing the SRI of being part of a conspiracy to undermine their administration. A government spokesman subsequently directly attributed the violence on Victoria Square to ‘organised groups from the opposition seeking to destabilise the constitutional order.’ Liviu Dragnea, later on 11 August, reacted to the statement made by Klaus Iohannis in which he had condemned the gendarmerie by accusing him of being ‘a political sponsor of violence.’ Catalin Radulescu, a PSD MP, warned the opposition: ‘Do not provoke us. A million of us will take to the streets and we will stamp on you.’

Movement in the Political Landscape? The Expatriate protest and the violence used against it by the authorities has acted to revitalise the opposition in Romania. What was intended to be a single rally now looks like being transformed into an on-going series of protests. On 11 August a second night of protests was held in towns and cities across Romania. Demonstrations took place in Bucharest, Iasi, Constanta, Sibiu Timisoara, and Cluj-Napoca. In contrast to the previous day’s protests there were no reported clashes between police and demonstrators. In Cluj-Napoca the opposition stated that the gendarmerie had joined them in singing and chanting anti-government slogans. The events on Victoria Square may also lead to tensions within the governing coalition. In recent days Calin Tariceanu, the leader of the ALDE, has sought to dismiss reports of an intra-governmental conflict between his party, the junior coalition partner, and the PSD. It was notable, however, that amidst the hard-line rhetoric coming from the PSD Teodor Melsecanu, the ALDE Foreign Minister, issued a statement stressing that Romania remained committed to ‘Euro-Atlantic values.’ This should be seen in the context of an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the Romanian government and the EU, and even statements by Liviu Dragnea critical of NATO. The forward movement of the PSD, as they pushed through their legislative measures, may also have been dented by these events. It is likely that this will accelerate the already evident opinion poll decline in PSD popularity. These factors taken together would suggest that the events of 10 August may produce a significant shift in the Romanian political landscape.

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