by Doina Boev
On January 31, 2017, literally overnight, Romania transformed into a field of protests. People gathered in Victory Square in Bucharest to oppose an emergency decree. The decree would have decriminalized embezzlement beyond 44,000 Euros, among a number of other drastic modifications to the Penal Code. The protests were the largest Romania had seen since the Revolution of 1989, when communism was abolished. However, the #rezist movement, as it came to be known, was only the tip of an iceberg which had been forming in Romania since 2012, awakening a civil society that seemed to be dormant in the previous years.
Prof. Dr. Ana Adi: Social Media has played an aggregated role in the protest in Romania. Protest that was successful on social media started to show results from 2012 onwards.
January 2012 marked the first authentic, civil protest in post-89 Romania. Triggered by the resignation of the minister of health, the protest ended up overthrowing the whole government. In 2013, another major protest took place. Called #unitisalvam (meaning “United We Save”), it aimed at stopping a bill that would have allowed a Canadian mining company to build a cyanide mine on the site of the Transylvanian region Rosia Montana. It was the first protest to use a hashtag and it managed to force the government to reject the bill. 2014 saw further unrest. Tensions arose because Romanians living abroad, who tend to vote against the leading party, had to queue up for hours in order to participate in the presidential election. Images circulated on social media appealing to the people in Romania to go vote for members of the diaspora, as the latter were deprived of their constitutional right to vote. And then, in 2015, a tragic fire happened in a night club in Bucharest because of no basic safety measures. The #colectiv protests that were sparked by the fire became the foundation for the 2017 #rezist anti-corruption movement. The protest motto was #corupţiaucide (“Corruption Kills”), and, like in 2013 with #unitisalvam, its main platform was a Facebook page. The immediate effect of the protest was the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Ponta.
Prof. Dr. Ana Adi: 2017 is in a sense just the tip of an iceberg of a lot of civic movements.
Dr. Alexandra Ioan: Another thing that online organizing facilitates is the speed of the reaction. So, if we look at the #rezist protest for example, that first night when the emergency decree was issued, within two hours people were on the streets. The reaction capacity was very very fast because of the social media access and because everybody was concerned, because people translated basically a social media type of anger and disappointment into street movement.
But there is another important aspect to keep in mind, beside social media:
Prof. Dr. Ana Adi: The first protest to use a hashtag on social media was the one against the gold leaching mine called Rosia Montana. So that was #unitisalvam, “United We Save”, and it was always bilingual. Romanians started to realize that in order for a protest to be successful, not only did they have to emotionally address Romanians’ sensibilities and interests, but also of those living abroad, especially in the context of a growing diaspora, a growing number of Romanians living abroad but still identifying as Romanians.
Dr. Alexandra Ioan: And I think that another thing that social media in term of organizing facilitates is again, connection, between what’s happening in the country and what’s happening abroad. And it was the same for the Rosia Montana protest, it was the same for the #rezist movement, you had people organizing in similar ways abroad and you had people coordinating abroad to what was happening in the country. So it was like an international echo of everything that was happening in the country, which I think contributed to putting public pressure.
Romanians living abroad (or the diaspora, as it is called in Romania) also organized the last two protests belonging to the #rezist movement. The first protest took place on August 10, 2018, and resulted in police violence against nonviolent protesters, with over 400 people injured. Exactly one year later, on August 10, 2019, tens of thousands of Romanians staged massive anti-corruption protests in the capital to commemorate the violent police crackdown and to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s government. Through the protests they helped organize over the past 9 years, social media have contributed to the awakening of Romania’s civil society. As a result, the leading party, PSD, has been ousted from power. However, Romania still has a long way to go in order to reach full transparency and justice. But with the current civil society, there is now hope.