Romania, like a lot of its neighbouring countries, is going through a rough post-communist transition. It hasn’t quite achieved the democratic values of the European Union and in fact seems to be heading back down a dark, oppressive path. I arrived in Bucharest late in the evening, having been in contact with a group of art activists for the past three weeks. My main contact had informed me that a small, informal protest would be taking place that night. As the crowded airport bus drove into the city, the sound of a few people chanting caught my attention and a group of protestors standing in the middle of a large roundabout soon came into view. I looked on, captivated by this peculiar scene of no more than 200 people chanting angrily in the midst of a busy road, holding up cardboard signs and Romanian flags. Yet when I turned back to my fellow bus passengers, hardly anyone had even looked up from their phone. The odd glance was cast, but no one was focussed on the demonstration quite like I was. After spending a week in Bucharest I soon realised why. This had become the new norm.
The wave of protests began in January 2017, ever since the newly sworn in government attempted to sneakily slide through some rather corrupt laws. What particularly caught people’s attention, was the effort to decriminalise corruption cases of under €40 000, meaning that politicians would be able to take money out of public funds without having to give a reason, if it was equivalent to this value. Furious citizens immediately took to the streets, kick-starting a movement unlike anything the country had witnessed since the 1989 revolution, which resulted in the fall of the nationalist communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of Romanians across the country protested throughout January and February, as well as members of the diaspora in Europe, America and Australia. The mental landscape of Romania has been permanently altered by these events, particularly in Bucharest, where large protests in August resulted in hundreds of people being tear gassed indiscriminately and excessively by riot-police, after fights broke out near the front barriers. Everyone I spoke to had something to say about the corruption in the country and the on-going protests. It wasn’t an off-topic conversation as one might expect, particularly when coming from a reserved British background. Instead taxi drivers, hostel workers, tour guides and of course the artists were all eager to get deep into the topic. It’s certainly sparked something off in the urban general public.
Surprisingly, people were not afraid to talk negatively about the government in public. On a free morning tour around the city, courtesy of Walkabout Tours, (highly recommended), our guide took us through the fascinating history of Romania, ending with the current protests and government corruption. Like many others in the capital, she alluded towards the similarities between the existing government and the old communist one.
‘Go and tell your friends about what is happening in Romania’, she passionately ordered the vastly international group, despite being right in the centre of the city. Whether or not the government is arrogant enough to not care about what the people think or say, or that by allowing people the freedom to openly criticise, it creates some kind of democratic illusion, I’m not sure. One thing is clear though; the citizens of Bucharest are desperate for a change and have little fear of their government.
Outside of the capital, things seem to be a little different. Whilst Bucharest is a typical, post-communist metropolis, filled with cool cafés, art galleries, fantastic restaurants and unique Bauhaus, communist architecture, rural Romania remains a different story. Driving through the often sparse and frankly quite dull countryside Eastwards, towards the more magnificent Danube Delta, small villages are randomly scattered everywhere. Most seem to only be home to either the very old or the very young, whilst others are semi-abandoned or predominantly Roma. Cars are still principally used, however it isn’t unusual to see people travelling by horse and cart and there are even signs in the towns that have a horse and cart symbol, equivalent to a bus or motorbike symbol over here. A photographer in Bucharest had informed me that this region, the South East, was much poorer and far less developed than the North or West of Romania. It’s also an area that holds very high support for the government. More so than any other region.
After successfully arriving in the Danube Delta, a vast nature reserve where the Danube river carves through the land, creating a serene world of islands and lagoons, a boat carried me to a small fishing village right on the coast of the Black Sea. With only a population of 797, it is a tight nit community, effectively isolated from the rest of the country. Around here, fishing and tourism are the main sources of income, with a hefty flow of middle and upper class Romanians and international tourists, descending upon the tiny village in the heart of summer. With no cars penetrating the still sea air and cows freely roaming around, life is simple and idyllic for those that choose to live here. Although in the winter, the freezing sea breeze and lack of income means that those left behind are no strangers to hardship. Even though it’s a tourist hot spot, it still remains fairly un-developed, aside from the trendy new four-star health and water-sports resort. It’s about as far off from Bucharest’s intense concrete jungle as you can get, with absolutely no sign of any government discontent. I mean, why should there be? For many people in this region, political life seems irrelevant. The actual impact of a change in government to their own, personal life would probably be minimal. Few have the luxury to contemplate politics when life is hard enough as it is. Over-fishing has led to a drastic decrease in supply, whilst many youths are leaving to pursue other careers or a better life in the cities. In this isolated area, political protest is reserved for those who have the time, money and effort to travel, something most fisherman and farmers don’t have.
Although I’m speaking solely on my experiences in the Danube Delta, it is a known fact that other rural regions face similar issues. Villages are slowly dying as people leave to find better work, whilst the older generation are stuck in a limbo between communism and capitalism. They grew up with the belief that the state would look after them when old age finally took its grip and were unprepared for the sudden switch to capitalism. As a result, rural Romania is crippled with poverty. During election periods, politicians are known to travel to rural and impoverished communities and offer up a small amount of money, food or even just oil, in return for a vote. It’s a tactic that is also extensively used in Russia and Hungary, cementing the corrupt politicians in place, even if they have a huge number of critics. For those protesting, it’s a distressing and frustrating sight to see their fellow citizens and sometimes even family members get manipulated in this way. State controlled media pushes out disinformation, sweeping people up in their lies, whilst those impervious to such propaganda, frustratingly attempt to convince others that it’s ‘fake news’.
Perhaps frustration is the best adjective to describe Romania's situation. It rings throughout Bucharest, injecting itself into the people’s disposition. There’s frustration at the blatant corruption and manipulation, frustration at the lack of opportunities, despite the potential for Romania and to top that off, frustration at the little change the protests are making. It seems no matter how hard they push, the government simply push back, exhausting the protestors. Fortunately there is some change in the mentality of the people. At the start of October, a referendum opting to redefine marriage to only being between ‘a man and a woman’, essentially banning the potential for same-sex marriage, failed to come to light thanks to a successful boycott. It revealed the progressive route Romania is going down, however at a cost of $40 million, the referendum was simply a waste of money and a distraction from the government corruption. Even in a small victory, the taste of frustration bitters the celebration. Nevertheless, the majority of people I spoke to remain sanguine about their activism and won’t stop protesting until a significant change comes to Romania.