Recent weeks have ushered in historic change here in Romania:
- 1 January– The populist Social Democrat Party (PSD) assumed control of Parliament under promises to continue the fight against political corruption, increase wages, and reduce taxes. As an interesting aside, the leader of the party Liviu Dragnea, is serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud and 2 counts of embezzling approximately $24,000.
- 6 January– Netflix became available in Romania; and I became unavailable.
- 31 January– Using arcane parliamentary loopholes, an emergency decree w
as passed without debate or full vote to decriminalize corruption. The decree will free hundreds of government employees previously convicted of using their office for personal gain if damages were less than $48,000. Ongoing trails (over 2,000), which impact several prominent members of the Social Democrat Party, will be dismissed.
- Record setting crowds protesting corruption in Bucharest and most major cities throughout Romania.
- Leaders of the European Union cautioned that this decree would cause lasting damage to Romania’s standing as a member of the EU.
- Romanian President Klaus Ioannis formally challenged this decree in Constitutional Court (the highest court in Romania).
If you were to peek into my apartment here in Bucharest, you would see that my budding relationship with Netflix occupied far more of my interest, and attention, than these incredible political events. Yes, I have Romanian residency status, but I’m an American citizen. This isn’t my fight.
Besides, I still have 3 seasons of House of Cards to catch up on.
Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) is a ruthless and corrupt politician that will stop at nothing to enforce his will on others, and the country. The show is so dramatic it strains the willing suspension of disbelief necessary for good fiction. No way. That can’t happen in real-life, I think to myself. Yet, I’m binge watching my way through show after show to see how he weasels his way out of the latest self-generated crisis.
Early in the 3rd season, I need a break. Frank manipulated his way to the presidency, appoints his wife as UN ambassador despite Senate opposition, and abuses power of Executive Order to fund a program that clearly falls under the jurisdiction of Congress. This guy doesn’t care about the people he is appointed to serve. He looks to his own interests, and those closest to himself, but no further.
“It’s still fiction,” I tell myself. Then, “This could never happen in the States… Right?”
- Crowds of protesters have grown even larger, despite sub-zero temperatures.
- Social Democrats insist that the media has distorted the facts. “We will not change course.” The decree will be enforced.
- Back in the States, Senate republicans use similar parliamentary procedure to quietly repeal a rule that requires oil companies to make public “payments to governments in exchange for developing resources.” Oil companies (i.e. Rex Tillerson’s Exxon mobil) are no longer required to announce bribes given in exchange for drilling rights.
At the same time, Trump is having a lunch with business leaders where he shares:
“We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank, because frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine that had nice businesses, they can’t borrow money.” (Dodd-Frank Act is the series of regulations designed to curb abuses that led to the Great Recession.) “They just can’t get any money because the banks just won’t let them borrow it because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank.”
Among the friends he was speaking to, and about: Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), and Stephen Schwarzian (Blackstone Group), two architects of the housing crash in 2008.
I have never participated in a protest before. Being surrounded by large groups of angry people terrifies me. My presence wouldn’t make a meaningful difference. Besides, the fight I had a stake in was 5,000 miles away, in Washington D.C.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t remain silent in my cave any longer. Somebody had to remind our political leaders that their primary responsibility is to serve its citizens, above and beyond their own interests.
Over the course of the 6km walk to the nucleus of the protest at Piata Victoriei, I tried to prepare myself. I would be jostled by crowds. There would be chants in Romanian that I’d have to translate before joining along (protesting a political decision is exercising a right, but I won’t condone treason or violence). How would I avoid getting caught up in a crowd that tried to charge the police barriers?
I mentally rehearsed tactical maneuvers to avoid these traps. Stay on the periphery, preferably without exposing my back. Keep constant connection with Chopin and George Winston’s message that life is beautiful and worth protecting through my headphones. Prepare to don my buff to reduce the effects of tear gas.
Despite careful planning, I was completely unprepared for what awaited me in Piata Victoriei.
I was greeted by families with toddlers. Puppies on leashes. Chalk Hop-Skotch outlines that I carefully avoided lest I interrupt important games. Traffic was rerouted by cordial, unarmed police to provide an enormous space for us to roam. Television crews lounged, uninvolved and uninterested, on the periphery. There was no drama. No tension. The largest concentration of the crowd centered around a Gypsy family that was selling fruit. Romanian flags everywhere. Children carried most of the homemade protest signs.
This was not what I was expecting at all. Rather than angry activists refusing to back down until their demands were met, I was welcomed into a community of concerned citizens. Families and middle-class workers that knew this was important enough to sacrifice an otherwise busy weekend. I had to turn down the classical music playing through my headphones before I could hear the conversational banter.
The crowd was quiet and peaceful, but even I could tell the message was deafening.
After 5 days of protests, PM Sorin Grindeanu, leader of the Social Democrats, admitted the error in attempting to pass this decree and agreed to repeal it.
I won’t delude myself into thinking that my presence at the protest was a deciding factor. However, it felt good to step outside my comfort zone, to stand alongside others who will not tolerate selfish (and immoral) behavior from their elected leaders.
N.B. I’m not a journalist. However, I’ve curated a few links if you’d like to read more:
Trump Moves to Roll Back Obama-Era Financial Regulations -New York Times