Romania: Social Democrat Government Seeks to Change the Narrative As Pressure Mounts After Protests

After the 10 August anti-corruption demonstration in Bucharest in which 452 people were injured by riot police the Social Democrat led government has, in the face of domestic criticism and international scrutiny, been seeking to establish its own version of events. These diversionary tactics will, however, do nothing to resolve the mounting problems faced by the government and increasing polarisation in the country.

A Demonstration Becomes A Coup: Viorica Dancila, the Romanian Prime Minister, at first appeared unsure as to how to react to the violence on Victory Square. On 11 August she issued a statement calling for an urgent enquiry to be carried out by the intelligence services in order to establish what had happened and who was responsible for the violence. In the days which followed the government position hardened. On 16 August Dancila wrote to Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, and Frans Timmermans, the Vice-President of the Commision, describing the 10 August protest as an attempt to remove her government ‘by violent means.’ She went on to accuse President Klaus Iohannis of failing to fulfil his constitutional role as ‘mediator’ between political forces in Romania. This line was repeated by Dancila prior to a cabinet meeting on 23 August when she said that the opposition had sought on 10 August to take power by force after they had failed to achieve this by electoral means in the December 2016 elections.

A Plot is Unveiled: On 21 August Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD), gave an interview to the pro-government Antenna 3 TV channel. Dragnea is prevented from serving as Prime Minister by his two criminal convictions, but he runs the Romanian government from behind the scenes. Dragnea began the interview by repeating the PSD-led government line that the 10 August protest had been a coup attempt with the violence being instigated by ‘paramilitary groups.’ The interview then took an extraordinary turn as Dragnea stated that he had been the target of an assassination attempt in March 2017. The assassination, he said, was to be carried out by a four man international team who had been resident for three weeks at the Athenee Palace hotel in Bucharest. He went on to say that the assassination plot had been organised by a ‘very famous man’ who was known around the world When pressed by the interviewer as to whether the ‘very famous man’ behind the assassination attempt was in fact George Soros Dragnea replied cryptically ‘I do not think of him he thinks of me.’ Soros has often been cited by PSD representatives and pro-government media, without any proof, as the instigator of opposition activity within Romania.

The various Romanian legal and judicial institutions including the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Directorate for Combating Organised Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT), and the intelligence services all denied having any knowledge of such an assassination. Dragnea stated that he had not informed the police or security services because he did not trust them.

The opposition responded to Dragnea’s statements with a mixture of dismay and scorn. They saw them as part of an attempt to transform ‘the criminal into the victim.’

Dissension Within the PSD: There is evidence, however, that Dragnea’s previously strong hold over the PSD structures is beginning to crumble. In the aftermath of the protests Ecaterina Andronescu, a PSD senator and former education minister, became the first senior figure within the party to call for Dragnea to step down. Andronescu noted that the PSD had fallen in popularity by 20% since the 2016. ‘There must’, she suggested, ‘be a reason for this’. Dragnea called for the heads of the PSD regional organisations to denounce Andronescu, but their response has been limited and unenthusiastic.

To Impeach or Not to Impeach?: Dragnea may also be facing problems within the coalition government. Dragnea has made no secret of his plans to move forward with the impeachment of his political rival the centre-right president Klaus Iohannis. The PSD’s junior coalition partner, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), however, appears tp be less keen on the impeachment option. Calin Popescu Tariceanu, the ALDE leader, has stated that such a move would have ‘unpredictable’ consequences. He would appear to have in mind the two attempts by the PSD to remove President Traian Basescu from office in 2007 and 2012, both of which ended in failure. The ALDE leader may also be concerned by the increased EU and international scrutiny which any attempt to remove Iohannis would bring. It was notable that on 11 August, amidst much hard-line PSD rhetoric, Teodor Melsecanu, the Defence Minister from the ALDE sought to assert that the Romanian government remained committed to ‘Euro-Atlantic values.’
Fara Penali! The opposition have also remained active in the days after the 10 August protests. The Fara Penali (Without Penalty) campaign has been seeking to gather signatures for a referendum to bring about a change in the constitution so that convicted criminals would be banned from holding public office. The campaign was initiated by the liberal opposition group the Union to Save Romania (USR), and supported by a number of NGOs. The signatures have been gathered by 5,000 volunteers. According to Romanian law 500,000 signatures need to be gathered over a period of six months in order for a referendum to be called. It is also stipulated that 20,000 signatures should be gathered in at least 21 of Romania’s 41 counties. On 18 August USR activists travelled to Telemoran, Liviu Dragnea’s home region, in order to gather, in a direct challenge to PSD leader. Shortly afterwards it was announced that the number of signatures gained had exceeded one million.
The Capitalist Enemy: The period after the 10 April demonstration has also seen a revival by the PSD of its attacks on international and domestic business interests, which were first seen during the street protests in early 2017. Multi-national companies have been accused of funding anti-government NGOs, and instructing their employees to attend anti-government demonstrations. Interestingly these accusations mirror those made against the PSD itself when it was reported that its regional leaders had instructed local government employees to take part in its June 2018 demonstration in Bucharest. The Romanian Foreign Investment Council (FIC) has condemned these attacks by the government as ‘unfounded.’ Eugen Teodorovici, the Finance Minister, has also made a broader attack on business suggesting that the protests are being backed by those who are opposed to the financial and economic policies of the PSD government.
The Developing Situation: At the start of 2018 Liviu Dragnea and the PSD appeared to be firmly in control of the political situation. The events of 10 August have, however, knocked Dragnea and the PSD off balance. There is evidence of loss of confidence by the PSD and intra-party and government divisions. In parallel with this the PSD is also facing new challenges from a reinvigorated opposition. The readiness of Dragnea, in response to this, to brand the opposition as ‘violent’ and invoke conspiracy theories that are even more extravagant than normal demonstrates that politics in the near future will be both polarised and volatile.

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