Srdja Popovic was one of the founders of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! whose campaign against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was successful in October 2000 when thousands of protesters took over the Serbian Parliament. After the revolution, Popovic served a term in the Serbian National Assembly. He is executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and author of “Blueprint for Revolution.” Cristian Sallai is a Romanian photographer, activist, and analyst. Views expressed are the authors' own.
Lessons for democracy from Romania's protest movement
What makes Romania’s protests so captivating is that unlike protests by Serbs in the 1990s, or by Zimbabweans and Venezuelans today, they take place in a genuine democracy. Moreover, Romanian protesters made it clear from the very beginning that they are not challenging the results of an election, but are denouncing the abuse of power by elected officials. Like recent protests in Poland, they are defending democratic institutions through people-power. And that is a precious gift to democracy.
It is fruitful to shed some light on the lessons Romania’s protests might offer to those across the world who are fighting corruption and authoritarianism, but also to those who are challenging abuse of power in any form. Romania may soon become a source of inspiration on how to challenge populist leaders in more famously democratic countries.
First let us take a look at the context: The latest wave of protests, with its final effects still unknown, overwhelmed Romania’s cities in recent weeks. Romania’s left-leaning Social Democratic Party, led by Liviu Dragnea, easily won the parliamentary elections in December 2016, just one year after a major anti-corruption drive forced the last socialist prime minister from power. In April, Dragnea got a two-year suspended prison sentence for inflating voter numbers in a July 2012 referendum to impeach then-President Traian Basescu. The sentence made Dragnea ineligible to serve as prime minister. President Klaus Iohannis nominated Sorin Grindeanu in his place.
Here we acknowledge a crucial fact: Turnout in this election was only 39.5 percent. Such low participation apparently led the new government to believe that its citizens are indifferent to the political process and wouldn’t react to the announcement of a decree meant to decriminalize certain corruption-related offenses.
We have to keep in mind that former Prime Minister Victor Ponta was forced to resign after mass protests following a deadly nightclub fire in October 2015 that was proven to be a direct result of corruption. The fire killed 64 people.
Indeed, the European Union recognizes Romania as one of its poorest and most corrupt member-states. Corruption in Romania is nothing new -- it is infamous. But its citizens also tend to be very proud of having worked hard to build anticorruption institutions and having succeeded in prosecuting top government officials for corruption. They are not letting those victories go to waste without a fight.
So the government was wrong.
Throughout contemporary history, social movements have frequently brought an energy strong enough to generate important social changes. The circumstances in which they occur are unique, but the rules they must follow to succeed are universal. The protests in Romania offer great insight into some of these rules.
Lesson 1: It's the diversity, stupid!
When you look at any successful movement, you must note the spectrum of social constituencies the movement can engage. Experts call this a “Spectrum of Allies.” Movements that mobilize narrow social groups (e.g., urban, educated, intellectual, ideological, etc.) are not likely to gain the numbers needed for social change. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement would not have succeeded had they not mobilized allied groups outside of the black community. Similarly, the LGBT minority in liberal San Francisco was not enough to secure Harvey Milk victory in the elections for local council, but success was reached when allies joined in.
One of the most unexpected social coalitions that we may examine in Eastern Europe is Poland`s Solidarity movement. What started as a working-class movement in the shipyards of Gdansk became victorious only when the most unexpected groups came together to stand with workers: intellectuals, youth and students, the middle class and farmers, and even the Roman Catholic Church.
So when you look at the Romanian protests and see how the middle class, hand-in-hand with students, has organized to support the urban poor, and when you see pet shop owners giving away free supplies so that pet owners can care for their animals while in the main square -- then you can say that things are getting serious.
This is in fact one of the biggest surprises from the recent protests all over Romania -- they have united people from various social classes with the common desire to prevent corrupt politicians from taking over. Protests came about suddenly -- to say they were “organized” is almost an improper term, considering that the movement, despite its size, has no leaders. Demonstrations occurred in small cities that did not protest even when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989. Suddenly, even people who consider themselves removed from politics became involved.
The politicians in power have tried to present the crowds as being manipulated and formed by corporatiști (a word used as a slight toward people who work for big multinational companies) in an attempt to divide the country and to please the ruling party’s socialist voter base. The accusation is undeniably false.
Squares all over the country have been filled with people of all ages and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and an unusual sense of solidarity has defeated societal divisions in Romania. The so-called corporatiști, young people who have a better economic situation than the mean, started supporting people from lower economic backgrounds who were protesting in the squares. One case of fundraising organized by young, middle-class employees for a man who came to Bucharest to protest from a smaller, poor, Social Democrat-controlled city, went viral. Small businesses are distributing free hot beverages and food for protesters, and other vendors have offered free materials for handmade signs and have even offered to print banners for free -- a strong showing of solidarity amongst Romanians whose only common trait is their wish for a lawful and corruption-free society.
Lesson 2: Identify the pillars of power
While it is crucial to recruit allies from every point along the spectrum of support, it is also important to identify the institutions that have the power to implement the changes you seek. These “pillars of power” can be the police, the media, the education system, government agencies, or other organizations. Without institutional support, little is likely to change. In Romania’s case, targeting the right pillars of society seems to have produced a string of small victories. The involvement of relevant and concerned institutions, namely parliament, the national anti-corruption directorate, and the office of the president, among others, has allowed Romania to effectively create change.
Iohannis played a crucial role in raising awareness of the decree: He arrived unannounced at the government meeting during which the decree was supposed to be adopted so that he could express his dissent. He was able to halt its passage, and he released the draft to the public for discussion. This is when protesters started gathering in small numbers in front of government buildings in Bucharest and several smaller Romanian cities. Iohannis quickly identified himself as an official ally in this fight. But that was just the beginning.
Ignoring the crowds, the public statements of the opposition, and the statements coming from the judicial community in Romania and from civil society, the government went on and issued the decree in a secret meeting in the middle of the night on Jan. 31, just a week after its first attempt.
Less than one hour later -- and it was nearly midnight when the announcement was made -- more than 50,000 people gathered in front of Victoria Palace in Bucharest despite below-freezing temperatures.
That was the moment when clear demands were formed by the crowd: the withdrawal of the decree, the resignation of the government, and the resignation of ruling party leader Liviu Dragnea, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the decree.
The next morning government officials ignored the protesters and said they were “manipulated” and financed by external powers -- mainly George Soros, a preferred scapegoat in Romania.
This went on for three days. Government officials even organized a press conference during which they declared that their actions were legal and that the protesters were misinformed. They also stated that the decree would not be withdrawn under any circumstances.
The crowd of protesters grew each day, and by Friday, Feb. 3, more than 300,000 people were protesting in dozens of cities across Romania. Pressure from civilians, the president, opposition parties, the legal community, and a number of media outlets forced the government into a corner. On Sunday, Feb. 5, as over half a million protesters took to the streets, the government took its first step back, announcing that it would withdraw the decree. However, the administration refused to accept any responsibility, blaming the decree’s effects on “bad communication.”
Romanians were having none of it. Although the decree was withdrawn by Sunday afternoon, more than half a million Romanians took to the streets again on Sunday evening, demanding fulfillment of all three of their demands.
Meanwhile, the government passed a parliamentary motion in which it refused to back protesters or concede to the demand that they give up power. On Feb. 2, the justice minister announced his resignation.
The lesson for democracy defenders worldwide is that democratic institutions are there to be pulled to the side of the people. If you are planning a movement, make sure your strategy involves those who may shift to your favor, regardless of the individuals and the political parties that may be ruling them.
Lesson 3: It can’t just be rallies and marches. Make it creative and funny
Yes, the global media (as they always do) have sent us the footage of large crowds, waving flags, and marches throughout Romania. But these actions alone don’t bring about change; what makes movements successful is in fact creativity and the ability to easily shift tactics. In this way, movements stay unpredictable. They become difficult for opponents to break or contain, and they are fun for participants. The world’s leading expert on nonviolent struggle, Gene Sharp, has defined more than 200 different tactics that nonviolent movements have successfully used throughout history. From slogans and symbols (the Romanian flag with a hole in it -- priceless); street theaters (dancing puppets in jail uniform); and symbolic lights and signs, to dance and music, Romanians are reading straight from the successful playbook. Not only have numbers been high and the people committed, but they are also having fun. And when movements are fun, everybody wants to join.
Lesson 4: Use new Tools -- social media
Societies evolve. People evolve too, and so do the tools used to protest abuses of power. Social media is among the most effective tools for social change today, and Romanians’ use of it shows just how effective it can be.
If asked who the leader of these protests is, the answer is actually Mark Zuckerberg -- that is a joke of course, but it carries some truth. The protests in Romania (like in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, or Egypt) would not be what they are without Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, and other new media tools. Without these tools the protests would be smaller and would lose some of the “coolness” factor that drew people in initially.
These protests have had no formal leaders. The organization, the timing, the creative messages -- everything about the protests in Romania has been on social media, except the spirit. This generation learned exactly how to exploit these new tools to promote their cause. And yes, you might think that it is a tool used by a narrow section of society, but this not entirely true. The Internet is very widespread in Romania, and social media, especially Facebook, has suffused all layers of society.
This is not the first time Facebook has catalyzed change in Romania. Today, analysts state that without social media, the outcome of the most recent presidential election in Romania would have been vastly different. Iohannis is often called the Facebook president.
Through social media, protesters in Bucharest inspired Romanians living in dozens of cities abroad (including London, Berlin, Paris, and Toronto) to join them in protesting.
Lesson 5: Democracy is like love, you need to make it every day
There are two powers that keep democracy and freedom alive: strong institutions and active citizens. This is a two-way street. Institutions are there to serve citizens, and citizens in a democracy are there to defend institutions from abuse. As any institution in the world can be abused by wayward officials, it is the responsibility of the people to defend it. People are most powerful when they hold their elected officials to account. It works, and it is possible. For example, Christian Wulff resigned as president of Germany after allegations of corruption relating to his prior service as minister-president of Lower Saxony. Similarly, following the release of the Panama Papers, Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson stepped aside after protests and allegations that his family attempted to hide millions in offshore accounts.
The existence of democratic institutions such as elections, judiciaries, and a free press doesn’t guarantee vitality to a democracy. Too often those who win power through elections try to undermine institutions and lean towards autocracy. From dramatic examples such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to more subtle measures such as those seen in Hungary or Poland, the world suffers no lack of power abuse by elected officials. Healthy societies are possible only when existing democratic institutions are supported and regularly checked by active citizens. This is exactly what Romania has reminded us.
Whether the Romanian protests succeed in more than just pushing aside the government’s assault on institutions is still unknown. Will they produce more cracks in ruling parties? Will they result in a referendum or new elections? How will this mass anti-corruption movement affect the region? (We already see solidarity protests in neighboring Bulgaria, another young EU member that has a dramatic history of corruption.) Might success in Romania impact the global movement of liberals that seems to be awakening after right-wing populism triumphed across the world in 2016? It is difficult to say, but it is clear that the brave people of Romania have defended their democratic institutions admirably and that movements all over the world can learn from their struggle.