Romania’s Difficult Transition

The latest anti-corruption and anti-government demonstrations in Romania, the biggest since the overthrow of the communist regime in 1989, raise difficult questions about the country’s political transformation. But they should raise fewer doubts about Romania’s continued commitment to European integration, or about the country’s place in Europe. For although acute, Romania’s problems are shared by other countries in the region.

The case for a second democratic transition has to be made, in Romania and Central and Eastern Europe, and the first step is to acknowledge the problems. The fact that the countries are members of NATO and the EU does not ensure the quality of their democratic processes.

Most importantly, key players in the civil society, parties, state bureaucracies and, above all, citizens, need to be convinced that a renewed democratic project is necessary. A transnational effort is probably needed; no agent of democratisation will be able to succeed by itself and only in a national framework.

The democratic transition in Romania has been notably difficult. The anti-communist revolutionary moment in 1989 was soon followed by difficult economic reforms and disappointment with pluralistic democratic politics.

According to the latest Eurobarometer, the most pressing issues for the country are still of economic and social nature – health and social security (37%), unemployment (25%), rising prices/inflation/ cost of living (24%), economic situation (23%) and pensions (21%). The most important hopes, fears and uncertainties seem to be related to the way the transition worked for most of the citizens.

And the overarching sentiment is of economic and social insecurity. Inequality and poverty are among the highest in the EU, with almost 40% of the population at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Unfortunately their concerns and interests are not actively articulated and represented in Romania’s political process. For example, the pensions for a large and vulnerable category of people are kept at a very low level. Almost 500,000 people in the country have a pension of €90 per month, mostly people who worked in agriculture.

At the same time, people who were employees of the army, police, the former Communist Securitate, diplomats, judges and prosecutors, around 160,000 people, have significantly higher, so-called ‘special’ pensions. The average pension for the ex-military is around €700, and €1,400 for civilians such as magistrates and diplomats.

However, the main post-communist cleavages that dominate the public and electoral agenda seem disconnected from the citizens’ agenda. The debates on how to better develop the economy, how to distribute resources and responsibilities, how to develop the rural economy and society, on what the drivers of industry should be, on how to integrate a territory with severe disparities have been silenced and turned into debates on administration and corruption.

The Eurobarometer for spring 2016 shows that trust in the EU is higher in Romania as compared to the EU average (47% in Romania, 33% in the EU). Compared with other political institutions – many of them unelected – army, prosecutors, intelligence services, Parliament and the political parties are the main targets of criticism from society.

Most of the criticism is that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the democratic and pluralistic or authoritarian and populist. We could add here the institutions like the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) – a special prosecutorial structure, and SRI, the domestic intelligence agency, which are perceived to be at the frontline of combatting corruption.

If one wants to explain the current persistence of socio-economic issues as top priorities for the citizens, and the authoritarian drift associated with modernising projects and the ambivalence towards integration and foreign driven reforms, a look at the past is necessary.

Without descending into a geographic determinism, it is safe to say that the rifts are a result of location, territory, resources and population. Romania is a semi-peripheral country striving for unity and independence in an area which was dominated for centuries by despotic empires – Ottoman, Tsarist and Austro-Hungarian.

The popular revolt in 1989 was a genuine expression of discontent and swept the regime away, or at least its highest echelons, including Nicolae Ceausescu. Those who quickly moved to take control in the chaotic days of the revolt were not opponents and dissidents of the regime.

The dissidents were too few and poorly organised, so reformed communists took charge, notably Ion Iliescu, a former party official fallen from grace. The very fact that the revolution didn’t bring new faces, but only older ones, opened a rift between ‘communists’ and ‘anti-communists’.

The social forces involved in the revolution and its aftermath quickly became institutionalised. Iliescu’s party became social-democrat, the advocate of stability, order and moderate reforms while the historical Liberal and Peasant parties became the parties of reform, modernisation and change.

Even though there were many transformations, mergers and splits, this rift still endures; the memories of those violent days stay strong even today and contribute to the maintaining of the divide.

Romania’s problem with corruption became obvious when the European Commission accepted its EU membership, but created a mechanism of evaluation and oversight of judicial and police reform. This is the source of another rift in Romanian politics, corruption and anti-corruption.

It operates on two levels. The first is inter-party political competition. Right-wing parties portray themselves as much less corrupt than the social-democrats. In turn, the social-democrats and their junior partners argue the anti-corruption is a political move intended to stop them from gaining power and governing.

This implies that the institutions fighting corruption, mostly DNA, act selectively and unprofessionally.

However, civil society and a part of the mass media point out that corruption is spread evenly within the major parties, branches and levels of government and that the anti-corruption drive should be devised accordingly.

Second, a part of civil society and the mass media call for a balanced and proportional increase in power and resources for DNA and its main institutional partner, the home intelligence service, SRI.

A second democratic transition effort will have to encompass three dimensions:

Return to the Citizen Agenda: This marks a return to the debates on economic models, taxation, social services, unemployment, poverty, and it would be instrumental in decreasing inequality and improving access to key social services. Special attention should be devoted to the most vulnerable in society, those alienated from the larger political community.

Rebuilding Pluralistic and Representative Institutions: Existing political parties need serious internal reform. They must open up to those with new ideas and energy, such as civil society organisations, activists, researchers and local communities.

New parties could be established to freely experiment with various participation and representation instruments. Importantly, the old and new parties have to be able to regain their legitimacy and policy capacity and become again a forum for democratic debate and the instrument for a renewed democratic control over decisions and policies.

Rethinking what it Means to Be ‘European’: Ten years after it became an EU member, Romania’s key question is how to stay open, active and responsible within the bloc, and how to avoid marginalisation or disengagement.

There are increasingly significant players who want to portray Romanians as either ‘victims’ or ‘second-hand Europeans’, and ignoring their powerful narrative would be a mistake. But their weakness is that they imply that the power resides in Brussels or other places, ignoring the vast resources that the society has for its development. And here the message can be equally constructive and optimistic.

It is clear that we are not living in an ideal society and that EU is not in its best shape. But we are lucky enough to have everything we need to overcome obstacles together.

Commentary  published on the website of The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
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