When We Give In, We Die - Unity in Romanian protests
text and photos by Cristina Grațiela Chiran
If I were to draw my teenage years in Bucharest I would trace thick pencil lines from my home behind the Parliament Palace to my high school just off Calea Victoriei / Victory Avenue, then all the way up to Piața Victoriei / Victory Square. There, behind the Government building, I would spend my afternoons at the Art School with my best friend who studied sculpture. Victory Square would be a graphite nexus, as fine pencil lines would start at the art school and cross the Government place and stop at the Romanian Peasant Museum where we'd watch old films under a starlit sky.
If Romanians from Bucharest drew their months of January and February 2017, their graphite lines would converge at Victory Square too. There, the intensity of all the pencils would make a hole in the map the shape of a nucleus with branches on the six boulevards that surround the Government building.
This collective map would trace the path of the recent street protests in Bucharest. Similar maps would tell the stories of Romanians that protested in cities throughout Romania, such as Cluj, Brasov, Iași, Timișoara, Sibiu, and throughout Europe including Paris, London, Brussels, Copenhagen and Rome.
Why did people take to the streets?
In the first month of 2017 Romanians were confronted with two legislative proposals that would allow more room for corruption and abuse of power. The Government proposed a draft law that grants amnesty to officials (who have been accused of corruption), and the emergency decree (in Romanian, ‘Ordonanta de Urgență’) OUG 13/2017 that decriminalises official misconduct up to a threshold of 200,000 lei, or approximately €42,100.
Romanians started drawing the first graphite lines on the maps of their cities as early as the 18th of January. That night 5,000 people took to the streets, 4,000 of them in Bucharest. On Sunday, 29th of January, Romania witnessed its largest ever protests since the fall of Communism. The collective maps were being ripped apart by the push of pens, as 90,000 people protested throughout the country, 50,000 of them in Bucharest alone.
Despite this massive civil uprising, on the 31st of January at 22:00 our Minister of Justice announced that the Government had passed the emergency decree and referred the amnesty law for debate to Parliament.
One hour later, thousands of people gathered at Victory Square in front of the Government to contest the decision. By 1AM the number had risen to 20,000. The following days witnessed even larger waves of protests.
Two weeks of protests … and counting
I’m sitting in my little office in Paris. Bundles of books and articles about Plato's democracy and international human rights law lay abandoned on the side of my desk. My eyes are glued to the laptop screen as I rush through articles from the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, the Independent, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg - everyone seems to be reporting about the thousands of Romanians protesting against corruption laws. Distant Facebook friends are posting photographs and live streams from the spot in Bucharest or Cluj. On the phone my mother tells me:
Over half a million people protested throughout Romania in the days after the emergency decree was passed.
On the 6th day of the protests the emergency decree that took people to the streets was withdrawn. The legal process was to do so via another emergency decree called OUG 14/2017. Even though the news came out at 16:00, over 250,000 protesters in Bucharest and 600,000 throughout the country continued taking to the streets.
If Romanians living abroad were to draw their month of February, every Sunday their pencil lines would come together. The Sunday when the decree was withdrawn, my graphite line joined over a thousand others at Place du Trocadero in Paris. We took photographs, shouted slogans and felt our hearts beating faster than usual, perhaps even beating in unison. It was empowering to be amongst fellow Romanians and draw my graphite line from the 5eme district all across Paris. It felt more real, somehow, than merely reading about the numbers of protesters and seeing aerial photographs of the masses. It's empowering to exercise democracy at home and away from home - after all we're not just citizens once every four years when we vote, right?
Frozen collective maps continue tracing protests at freezing temperatures. At -7 degree celsius on the 12th of February over 50,000 people gathered in Bucharest, and 24,000 in the biggest cities throughout the country. Protests are still being organised every Sunday.
Why do the protests continue?
Even though the emergency decree OUG 13/2017 was withdrawn, if OUG 14/2017 (used to repel the former) is ruled unconstitutional, then OUG 13/2017 will enter into force. Moreover, the amnesty law is currently being debated in Parliament. As the slogans say, peaceful protest is the only way to show that Romanians are watching their politicians.
The Culture of Protest in Romania
In only five days Romanians have become experts in national and international legal matters. Slogans were referencing punishments for official misconduct in Europe similar to the new proposal for Romania. Have Romanians always been so civically engaged? Looking back, the answer is actually, yes.
In ‘89, Communism was overthrown by street protests and a historic revolution in Bucharest, which resulted in the capital having its very own Piata Revoluției / Revolution Square. In the nearby buildings one can still see the bullet holes that were fired on the day itself.
The protests continued in the summer of 1990. After the fall of Communism the National Salvation Front came into power, a party formed by Communists, with a Communist leader, Ion Iliescu. Protesters - especially students and academics - gathered in front of the government building, and occupied the University of Bucharest and areas around it. In an attempt to stop the protests, Iliescu called on miners to come to the capital and help restore the 'democratic order'. The miners came and, collaborating with the police and secret services, they acted violently towards the protesters and vandalized the city. Known as Mineriada, this violent movement led to a long-lasting political and civic reluctance among Romanians when it comes to protesting. It's also the reason why protesters nowadays insist on peaceful protesting. Its lasting heritage translates into the motif of Tineriada (tânăr = youth) meaning the power of the youth to take to the streets to protest.
The next largest nation-wide mobilisation took place 23 years later. In 2013, Prime Minister Victor Ponta proposed a draft law granting a foreign company a permit to mine in the region of Roșia Montana and relocate the population in order to create the largest open- pit gold-mine in Europe. The mining method involved the use of cyanide which is highly toxic for people, animals and the environment. The day after the law was proposed, thousands of people took the streets against the law and asking for the demise of the PM. The protests escalated, lasting four months, and were successful: after national and international protests, the law did not pass in the end.
Two years later, in 2015, a new wave of massive protests hit the country. Romanians denounced corruption after night-club Colectiv caught fire despite having obtained all the official approvals to function. #Colectiv is still an open wound in recent Romanian history. 64 people died and 147 were gravely injured. On the fourth day of protests politicians met the people’s demands - the Prime Minister resigned, along with his Government and the Mayor of District 4 (where Colectiv was located). Many night-clubs who had illegally obtained authorization were closed, and smoking was prohibited inside.
Unity can achieve wonders. In Romania’s current political system, it seems that dialogue between citizens and politicians can only exist when people come together, united in their requests. When people join hands and hold authorities accountable, the Government is reminded that they should work not for themselves, but for the people. What better example is there of real-life Unity?