Romania’s White Revolution

Romania’s White Revolution

And on the 13th day, there was light: 70,000 protestors lit up Piata Victoriei in Bucharest at 9pm on February 12th in an unforgettable display of Romania’s tricolor of red, yellow, and blue. The tricolor projected by the lights of thousands of individual cellphones evoked two clear messages: that the lifeblood of a democracy is the will of its people, and that after 27 years after the fall of Communism, the nation is shining a light into the dark corridors of its government’s endemic corruption. Romania’s “White Revolution” has come 27 years after the fall of Communism.

The widespread protests erupted on the evening of January 31st, when the government attempted to pass an incendiary emergency executive ordinance (OUG 13) that would have decriminalized various forms of corruption at 10pm presuming that no one would take notice. Such a move was not without precedent: for 27 years, Romanian politicians have often slipped through morally depraved decrees with the sound reassurance that an apathetic populace resigned to its fate under crooked rule would not bother to peruse the terms. About 2,000 politicians, many in the ruling PSD party, would stand to gain from the proposed clemency and measures of leniency, particularly PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea, who faces corruption charges of defrauding the state of 24.000€ ($26,000). Should the decree pass, even for one second, it would effectively eliminate their pending files and clear their records. This isn’t a mere obstruction of justice, this a complete disregard and perversion of the very concept of justice in Romanian legal terms.

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Protestors in Piata Victoriei, Bucharest
In a movement that drew over half a million protestors at its height on the evening of February 5th, Romanians have now taken to the streets for fourteen consecutive days despite rain, snow, and frigid temperatures throughout the country. Evoking memories of its 1989 revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship, the spirit of the past two weeks has been one of righteous indignation, optimism, and uprising, filled with emotional moments of crowds singing the national anthem in city squares and parents protesting with their children alongside them or on their shoulders.

The prevailing hope is that the young generation is now rising to carry out the unfinished business of the 1989 revolution. “I was there when the miners came [to violently topple the protests] in 1990. After so many years, my hope is that this is the end of the cycle: that what we started then, our youth will now finish,” declared a protestor in Piata Victoriei in Bucharest on the evening of the momentous color spectacle on February 12th.

The witty placards, technological prowess, and powerful imagery that have gained these protests world-wide attention give the impression that Romanians are professional protestors as the recent protest scenes are exemplary in many ways, resembling rock concerts with live musical performances, flashlights, and projections on nearby buildings of protests slogans such as “Resist,” and “We’ve had enough.”

 

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“Romania, Wake Up”
Indeed, protests have a temporal immediacy in Romania’s national memory: in the fall of 2015, smaller protests broke out in the wake of the Colectiv club fire in Bucharest that resulted in the death of 64 individuals.  The protests then, like the ones now, decried the government’s corruption and led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta who besides plagiarizing his doctoral thesis, faced charges of tax evasion, money laundering, conflict of interest and forgery.

So far, the protests have at best succeeded at slowing the ordinance’s passage and bringing about the resignation of the Minister of Justice Florin Iordache. While Ana Birchall has been named as the interim Minister, discussions have floated questioning the probability of Victor Ponta being designated the next Minister of Justice. While the current Prime Minister of Labor Olguta Vasilescu mentioned the possibility, Victor Ponta has declared that he has no intention of becoming Minister of Justice (“last time I was Minister of Justice, I made nothing but mistakes” he stated), nor has anyone proposed the position to him.

As far as halting the ordinance, the government has since introduced OUG 14 to repeal the corrupt OUG 13. However, it’s possible for the decree to enter into effect: Ordinance 14 (which passed through the Senate and Chamber of Deputies earlier this week) was challenged in the Court of Appeals in Bucharest, as it appears to have some elements that may not be constitutionalThus, it remains very possible that the highly protested OUG 13 can still enter into effect. 

Many still fear the loopholes left in the wake of OUG 13’s ambiguous repeal, as the Constitutional Court of Romania (CCR) declared last week that the government acted in a perfectly legal manner in attempting to pass the decree in the middle of the night. Clearly, the CCR emphasized form over substance in their consideration of the matter by claiming that no conflict exists between the judicial branch and the government.

In the wake of judicial indifference and procedural lethargy, protests have continued: “On any night, we can wake up to find that some infraction has been decriminalized,” a protestor decried. “We want to work, not to supervise you.”

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“Resign! We can’t stay to guard you night after night!”

The Romanian diaspora, which numbers around 4-6 million, has demonstrated its solidarity in the call for justice, turning out varying numbers of protestors throughout Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The rallying of the Romanian diaspora also played a significant role in the election of pro-EU President Klaus Iohannis of the National Liberal Party (PNL), as the turnout of the Romanian diaspora numbered about 379,000 voters in Europe alone, paving the way for Iohannis’ triumph over Victor Ponta in November 2014. President Iohannis has remained firm on his campaign promises to tackle corruption and strengthen the independence of the judicial system, and in a move that was widely condemned by the left, even joined the protests on the first evening and called the measures an offense to justice. President Klaus Iohannis made an impassioned speech before the government last week, declaring: “You have been elected, now you govern. But with transparency and morals.” The PSD party collectively walked out in disdain in the middle of his speech.

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The Romanian diaspora at the vote in Paris, 2014.

Amidst internal and international protests, Liviu Dragnea and Calin Tariceanu, the leadership of the PSD-ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) coalition have slowed the repeal process and seem to exploit every possible means of evading OUG 13’s repeal. Meanwhile, they have embarked on a disinformation campaign to detract from their wrongdoing, framing the debacle as a political and ad hominem issue, rather than a moral issue and labeling the protestors as “Iohannists” who are being financed by billionaire George Soros and manipulated President Iohannis himself who, they claim, seeks a hostile take-over (or systemic destabilization) of their democratically elected government. They also speak of the entrenching power of the DNA, which they claim is overstepping its boundaries of authority as an institution and threatening their democratic rule, and accuse the DNA’s chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi of denigrating Romania’s reputation on the international stage for expressing her worries about the recent events. Only begrudgingly have they agreed to withdraw the ordinance, as Liviu Dragnea ardently opposed withdrawing the ordinance during the first few days of the protest, declaring that the government’s action was legal.

 

Throughout the day on February 5th, Liviu Dragnea repeatedly threatened to stage a PSD counter-protest “of those people who weren’t manipulated by Iohannis,” which brought out several hundred protestors in front of Cotroceni Palace, the President’s place of residence. A majority of these protestors are senior citizens who sympathize with the PSD government’s promises to raise their pensions.  Meanwhile, Liviu Dragnea continues his charade to emerge on top, asserting his innocence and attempting to brush the mess of recent events under the rug, offhandedly dismissing reporters’ probing questions into whether the events have affected his on-going case for his abuse in service, which has been postponed at numerous stages in the past two weeks. The French newspaper Le  Monde has termed him “the face of Romanian corruption,” and perhaps with good cause: when asked about Romania’s anticorruption fight in an interview with Swiss media on December 12th following PSD’s parliamentary victory,  he replied: “I want to talk about Romania’s future, not about this bullshit.”

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PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea
Cronyism and nepotism run rampant in the Romanian political system, and the PSD party seems willing to destabilize Romania’s government and sacrifice its international stature for the sake of bailing out their cronies. However, the debacle has produced an internal generational conflict of sorts within the PSD party, as several party leaders resigned in the wake of the ordinance’s proposal. Vice President of the PSD party Mihai Chirica has been an ardent voice for accountability and reform in the PSD party. He immediately called for the resignation of Minister of Justice Florin Iordache and criticized Liviu Dragnea, stating: “We need a new leadership, a change in management: leadership with an iron fist no longer has a place in Romania’s democracy.” Likewise, PSD Europarliamentarian Catalin Ivan openly declared his sympathy with the protestors, rebuking former Minister of Justin Florin Iordache for his “secretomania” declaring that the fight against corruption must continue and that the government should not take furtive initiatives without public debate. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has conceded that “The government needs to consult with the people, listen to the people, and act transparently.” A leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL) stated: “The problems did not stem from Sorin Grindeanu, but from his party leader with a criminal file. However, Grindeanu has widely lost his credibility by placing the interests of Liviu Dragnea above his responsibility to govern transparently.

While some political analysts have stated that the PSD party does not represent a continuation of Romania’s future (especially due to its ties to the former Communist party), a majority of the protestors support the legitimacy of the elected government. However, voices on the street claim that they don’t believe the government’s acquiescence and call for the Prime Minister Grindeanu’s resignation. This isn’t necessarily a war against a particular party, but against a corrupt ruling class of kleptocrats who have left them demoralized and disillusioned with their current democracy. Since its revolution, Romania’s reform attempts have been all but blocked by the stubborn inertia of such leaders, who fear a loss of power at the expense of reform. The protestors aren’t necessarily calling for new elections. Most individuals accept the PSD victory of December 12th. However, they call for new leadership of the PSD party – a clean slate in the purest sense, not white-washed criminal records. Protestors laid out banners in Piata Victoriei citing: “We respect the vote. We ask for a new, competent, and clean government.”

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Demonstrators hold banners depicting the head of the ruling Social Democrat party Liviu Dragnea during an anti-government protest in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017. Protesters braved freezing temperatures gathering outside the government headquarters for the 11th consecutive day to demand the government’s resignation.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Romania’s government has faced numerous reprimands from its Western allies, who warn that backtracking on corruption and disregard for European value’s undermines its position in the EU and NATO, and places Romania at risk of losing EU funds as well as its very right to vote in the EU. European Commission President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans declared: “The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.”

The most scathing reproach has come from the noted Eurosceptic former UKIP leader Nigel Farage of Great Britain, who stated, “It’s unbelievable that we are in a political union will a country like Romania. They should have never been allowed to join [the EU].”

Meanwhile, the resistance of Romania’s protestors has also become a beacon of hope for Southeastern Europe (particularly Bulgaria and Italy) as taking a stand against anti-corruption. As the fate of OUG 13, and consequently, Romania’s sense of justice, hangs in the balance, it’s clear that the Romanian citizenry has undergone a definitive awakening of its social consciousness. As President Iohannis asserted: “The nation is alert. It is alive. And it is very unsatisfied.” The Romanian electorate will most likely face a referendum proposed by the President in March regarding the fight against corruption.

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While it is difficult to say whether this “White Revolution” will ultimately succeed in ousting the PSD government, reshuffling those in government, or ensuring demands for transparency, a certain democratic evolution has emerged. A populace that feels disillusioned, disrespected, mistreated, and tired of the manipulative exploits of its media has mounted a protest of resistance.

Romania remains no less stable in the wake of its protests, as these protests have been largely peaceful. However, a blow to the rule of law would obliterate its legitimacy. As Robert Schwartz attested: “It is not our country that is in danger, but rather our democracy.” This isn’t just about the repeal of an ordinance, but about the evolution of a society that demands an end to deceit and populism. This isn’t just about an ordinance written on a piece of paper, but about the collective consciousness, about Romania’s future as a nation.

Thousands of Romanians have taken to the streets and lit up the nation’s soul in a defense of democracy, the rule of law, the reign of justice, and a society based on moral values and accountability. Hopefully, Romanians will remain alert and deepen their civic engagement to root out corruption at all levels, so that in the wake of this White Revolution, “No one will ever be able to govern in the dark again.”

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External Implications and Disinformation in Romania’s Justice Crisis

External Implications and Disinformation in Romania’s Justice Crisis

In the coming hours, the government of Romania will decide whether to repeal the corruption decree that has drawn over 330,000 individuals out in protest across the country over the past few days and garnered stern remarks from Romania’s strongest allies. Tonight, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has announced that the ruling PSD party will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to decide on the status of the decree.

The PSD-led government passed an emergency decree on the evening of January 31st which decriminalized various forms of corruption, including the abuse of power to influence legislation, conflicts of interest, and negligence. The most notable measure is the decriminalization of involvement in corruption cases valued less than $48.000 (200.000 lei).

Protests have consistently drawn over 150.000 protestors out into the streets per night and have been scheduled to continue until Tuesday, February 7th when the parliament will decide whether to pass the decree into effect – unless of course, the government decides to take into consideration the massive protests and admonition of its Western allies.

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Liviu Dragnea, Head of the Social Democratic Party

This decree largely stands to benefit Liviu Dragnea, head of the PSD ruling party, who faces charges of corruption. “I don’t know why people are protesting,” he stated soon after the protests broke out. Meanwhile, many of the placards carried at the protest bear his image. Now, he has stated that he will seek to withdraw the ordinance if he has the accord of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, who has since deferred the decision to the PSD party.

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External Implications

The Romania’s internal justice crisis has serious external implications, drawing considerable reproach from the US and the EU.

A joint-statement from Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States has stated that: “This decree … can only undermine Romania’s reputation in the international community and risks affecting partnerships based on common values, inherent to the guiding principles of the EU and NATO.”

Earlier, on January 19th US Ambassador Hans Klemm discouraged any measure that would weaken the rule of law in Romania and encouraged Romania’s institutions to consolidate themselves against corruption. Following the decree, US Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated:

“…The integrity of rule of law, including critical anti-corruption legislation, is a cornerstone of Romania’s vibrant democracy and is an integral component of what makes Romania a more capable and reliable ally. With ever-increasing threats to democracy in Europe today from Russia and its proxies, Romania cannot afford to retreat in the fight against corruption.”

British Ambassador to Romania Paul Brummell met with Laura Kovesi, the chief prosecutor of Romania’s Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), and reaffirmed that the DNA remains “a key in the fight against corruption” and reaffirmed that Great Britain remains the DNA’s partner in the prevention and combat of corruption.

Furthermore, German officials have asserted that Romania now risks losing EU funds as well as its very right to vote in the EU, given its serious disregard for European democratic values. On February 2nd, the decree was debated in the European Commission in Brussels, where Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans delivered the following appeal:

“It is worrying, what we have seen in the last couple of days. I would urgently call upon the Romanian government to reconsider what they have done both with the emergency ordinance and the draft legislation… Like any European nation, the Romanian nations deserves politicians and governments who support the fight against corruption, who want to rid their societies completely of corruption. The efforts done in Romania are phenomenal… so why would you, in the final meters of a marathon, turn back and go the other way again? I really would like to call upon the government not to go down that road. And we’ve seen the protests… the very clear worries expressed by the Romania judiciary on this… Let them finish their job.”  

An Internal Disinformation Campaign and Destabilization of the PSD Party

Beyond the weighty reprimands, more worrying might be the internal disinformation campaign which aims to further destabilize the country, as the PSD party seemed to have largely ignored the international reprimands until Saturday evening. On national television shows, PSD-ALDE leaders (most notably Liviu Dragnea, Calin Tariceanu, and Ioan Ghise) made nearly hysterical propositions, declaring President Iohannis as being wholly responsible for the sparking the protests and possessing an external mission to “dismember Romania.” The protests, these proponents say, are only a pretext for President Iohannis’ aim to seize complete control of the government.

President Iohannis made a presence at the first evening of the protests and declared his support for the protestors calling for a corruption-free Romania. He has since been at summit of the European Council in Malta, where he made the following comments regarding Romania’s precarious situation: “The rule of law has to prevail. European values have to prevail and this is what I believe will happen.” He also reassured investors that they are not threated and that Romania’s economic conditions remain largely intact (the leu immediately depreciated the morning following the decree, but has since buoyed back to a degree of relative stability). “This is a matter of principle for the Romanian population,” he declared.

The path to this proposed concession by the PSD party has not come easy. While President Iohannis sought to repair the inroads at the European Council meetings in Malta, PSD party leaders remained all but adamant in their avowal to pass the decree, citing their status as a democratically elected government. (One should remember that a true democratic government is perpetually accountable to the demands of its citizens and does not have a free pass to flagrantly do as they please as once they are elected under the mere pretext of democratically-given authority. Democratic governance requires a constant dialogue between electors and the elected).

However, leaders within the PSD-ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) coalition largely choose to paint this as a political and ad hominem issue, rather than a moral issue, labeling the protestors “Iohannists” who are being financed by billionaire George Soros – a frequent claim of Russian media channel RTV as being the cause of undoing for multiple governments across Europe. The PSD-ists also speak of the entrenching power of the DNA, which they claim is overstepping its boundaries of authority as an institution and threatening their democratic rule, another hallmark claim of Russia’s disinformation campaign. Moreover, throughout the day on Saturday, February 5th, Liviu Dragnea even threatened to stage a PSD counter-protest “of those people who weren’t manipulated by Iohannis,” a move which would have surely inflamed tension on the streets.


“Soros, if you see this, the money hasn’t arrived yet.”

Putting aside the absurdity of these claims, this sort of disinformation campaign in Eastern Europe is nothing new. In fact, it is typical of Russia’s strategies of fomenting instability in Romania’s neighboring countries by creating social confusion through a campaign of disinformation which would allow it to remain in power and hinder reform.

One needs to look no further than Romania’s neighboring Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, where frozen conflicts have been destabilizing governments and hindering reform for years. As the bulwark of the EU and NATO’s presence in eastern Europe, Romania could be experiencing the effects of such a disinformation campaign, as some leaders within the PSD-ALDE alliance, such as Ioan Ghise, have openly suggested the replacement of pro-European President Klaus Iohannis.

Meanwhile, Moldova itself elected a strongly pro-Russian President Igor Dodon in December, who has declared his plans to cease Moldova’s entrance into the EU and instead enter Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Indeed, he has already proposed a new flag that would ostensibly erase Moldova’s historic ties to Romania (and thus, by association, with the West) by removing the historic Romanian coat of arms from its flag in what has been denounced as a “gross manipulation of history.”

Thus, it is not far-fetched to question whether Romania is currently falling prey to “Europe’s rising anti-establishment movements and Moscow’s disinformation campaign… aimed at undermining trust in democratic institutions, weakening NATO, and shifting debates in Europe to benefit Russia,” as Kavina Suratha of Foreign Policy magazine described.

Not all is lost for the PSD party…

Meanwhile, the Hungarian UDMR party, which also allied itself with the PSD party following the elections on December 11th, has since distanced itself in the wake of the ordinance, stating that such an enactment through an emergency decree is unacceptable.

Some PSD leaders have called out their party while others have resigned: namely, Aurelia Cristea, Minister for Business Florin Jianu, and Europarliamentarian Sorin Moisa. “There comes a time when silence becomes guilty.” said Sorin Moisa, former member of the PSD party who called for the repeal of the ordinance in his statement of resignation. Since Wednesday, the PSD mayor of Iasi Mihai Chirica has consistently called for accountability amongst his colleagues and for the PSD government to deliver on its campaign promises without aberrations.

While Romania has made strides to eliminate corruption and strengthen its rule of law in recent years, there is still a far way to until corruption is removed at various insitutional levels. Moreover, the passage of the corruption degree would undo all its progress towards becoming a transparent democracy and weaken its internal stability and external credibility with its allies, signficantly damaging its position in both the EU and NATO on who it remains economically and militarily dependent. Despite the internal nature of Romania’s justice crisis, a deeper examination of external factors reveals a more stark reality – one which particularly puts Romania at the forefront of combatting its own disinformation campaign. It remains to be seen whether PSD leaders will hearken to reality, or whether they will continue the charade of disinformation and allow this to become a further devolution of Romania’s progress, stability, and security.

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Protestor in Cluj Napoca, photo by Valentin Vesa

Like a Thief in the Night, Corruption has come to reign (even more) freely in Romania

Like a Thief in the Night, Corruption has come to reign (even more) freely in Romania

Romania’s democracy is in dire straits. Romania is experiencing its largest protests since the fall of Communism in its 1989 Revolution,  exceeding 300,000+ protestors all over the country this past week, particularly in Bucharest (150.000), Cluj Napoca (35.000), Timisoara (25.000), Iasi (20.000), Sibiu (20.000), and many other smaller cities. On the evening of January 31st, Romania’s government signed a late-night emergency executive ordinance at 10PM, granting clemency for officials convicted of corruption and decriminalizing offenses that cause less than 200,000 lei ($47,8000) in financial damage with added measures of leniency to the penal code. Under this measure, the government proposed to release 3,000 prisoners (to reduce overpopulation in prisons they say, to free its former colleagues convicted of corruption say the rest). In other words, no need to worry about facing prison charges if you swindle a mere $40,000 from the government.

Many in the PSD ruling party stand to gain from clemency and measures of leniency, as do 2,000 other local politicians.

Thousands of Romanians poured out into the city streets in protest at the 12th hour of the night in emotional and indignant outbursts against the motion that effectively allows corruption to thrive, and protests are set to continue for the next several days. The government even published the ordinances in the Official Monitor at 1AM. As one friend wrote to me, “The government’s rush is incredible.” “They have acted like thieves in the night,” say many.

As one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, this sets Romania back on its fight against corruption, which had been significant strides in since 2014 to combat corruption through its National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA).

President Klaus Iohannis, chief anticorruption prosecutor Laura Kövesi, and other justice officials have condemned the measures. Indeed, President Iohannis himself joined the protests on the first evening, where he called the measures an offense to justice.

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The ordinance has also been criticized by the European Commission, and has received reproach in a joint statement from Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, which say this movement has also undermined Romania’s position in the EU and NATO.

How was this passed?

On December 12th, the PSD (Social Democratic) party was victoriously voted in to lead the government through its promises of higher pensions and a higher minimum wage drew in many voters who earnestly desired higher living standards. Many PSD supporters now feel disillusioned and betrayed by the party they had supported. Some have said, “The PSD party here doesn’t really stand for values. It stands for clientelism, and now it’s seeking to bail out its cronies.”A few in the PSD, namely Secretary of State Florin-Daniel Sandru, have even handed in their letters of resignation over the scandal. However, party-blaming will not be the answer.

The leader of the ruling PSD party himself, Liviu Dragnea, was supposed to appear for a hearing on his charges of corruption earlier on January 31st. The hearing was delayed, only to have the government pass the emergency ordinance later in the evening. When asked about Romania’s anticorruption fight in an interview with Swiss media on December 12th following PSD’s parliamentary victory,  he replied: “I want to talk about Romania’s future, not about this bullshit.”

Others, such as PSD mayor Mihai Chirica of Iasi, have spoken out against those in their own party and insisted on accountability. “Romania needs stability more than ever… Romania has to get to work… We continue to believe in our social-democratic European values…” He particularly called upon the resignation of Florin Iordache, the Minister of Justice, whom he declared wholly responsible for this oversight of justice.

Meanwhile, the anti-corruption party Save Romania Union (USR) seeks to ally itself with European right National Liberal Party (PNL) in these movements against the government. While some seek to resign en masse to force a referendum, this initiative has been condemned by others, who warn that an interim government will be powerless to pause or repeal executive ordinances of the previous regime.

Many are the voices crying out. Many are the necessary reforms to restore justice and continue on the path to transparency and veritable democracy, and many hope that this firm indignation over corruption will crystallize into a call for civic virtue in the Romanian consciousness. Currently, the resentment is growing and remains largely unorganized.

Unfortunately, Romania is no stranger to such blatant corruption. Despite its Europeanization through its entry into the EU, some would say that little has changed since its “revolution” in 1989 when they executed their dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. The current ruling PSD party (Partidul Social Democrat) is the predecessor to the former Communist party, and it has consistently been criticized in the past 27 years for slowing much-needed reforms in the country following the revolution.

To all Romanians joining in the protest: Organize yourself. Stay informed. More importantly, become involved in your democratic processes. Only 39% of the eligible voting population turned out to vote in December. We’re not at the point where we can disengage and dismantle our protests. We cannot become resigned to our fates. Never forget that the government is made of public servants. Demand change and demand justice as citizens. Freedom is never freely given – it must be asserted.

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01.26.2017

“My dream to visit America was ruined by Donald Trump.” – Overheard in a cafe during a dinner conversation in Arad, Romania.

Now that I’ve attained dual citizenship in Romania, many here have jokingly asked me, “So, do you think Trump will let you back in your own country now?” I laugh it off, but the reality is that its difficult to combat the image that has been perpetuated following the wake of Trump’s vitriolic and divisive candidacy. It’s difficult being an American abroad, seeing the turmoil and massive protests back home. It’s all the more difficult being a Fulbrighter, serving as a cultural ambassador for the US, and facing the series of questions from locals and students here. Many worry about the racism, religious discrimination, misogyny, and creeping isolationism that America seems to be heading towards. Others have asked me if I even want to go back after this.

Here in Romania, people have their own (arguably worse) worries, as only 27 years ago, Romania was still a Communist country. Many here have looked to the US as a beacon of freedom, justice, and equality. One friend told me “The jokes about American politics will write themselves for the next four years.”I only hope he will not be proven right. I can only hope that Americans will continue to rise and demonstrably defend the values that define us.

The beginning of the end in Arad

The beginning of the end in Arad

As my semester in Arad draws to a close, I find myself constantly asking myself: have I made the most of my time here? The answer, despite all my second-guesses and mental meandering is simply, yes.

My semester in Arad was often interrupted by trips to Bucuresti to sort out my Romanian citizenship issues, because as it turns out, I had to obtain my Romanian citizenship in order to remain here legally (there will be a proper post dedicated to this whole process here). Nevertheless, while I wish I could have had more of a consistent time in Arad, I don’t regret a bit of the experience, as my trips to Bucuresti resulted in an internship with Romania TV, which, disheartening as it often was to watch the mess of politics and rampant corruption firsthand, I gained deep insight into Romania’s media and news reporting. All the more, I was relatively grateful to return to the quieter life that awaited me in Arad.

After all the unceasing bouts of activity and going to and fro, this week marked the beginning of it end, as it were.

On Tuesday, I had an interview with Vasile Goldis University television that covered my experience here. I was rather caught off-guard as the interview was done completely in Romanian. This was both daunting and challenging, for as much as my proficiency in Romanian has progressed, I found it quite difficult to articulate as expressively as I would have liked. (The link to the interview will be shared once it’s complete).

By Wednesday morning, the panic had started to settle as the mid-week marker arrived, and anxious thoughts milled about my mind. Moments such as those call for a large cup of coffee and a long chat with a dear friend, which I was extremely grateful to have. It’s remarkable how some people can fill up your life in such short spaces of time, and I’m amazed at the depth of friendships that I’ve made in this relatively short period here. If anything, this whole experience in Romania has been teaching me that it’s all about people. I never really thought I would experience culture shock to the extent that I have: Romania’s culture is highly people-oriented, and oddly enough, I realize that I’m yet in the process of making a noticeable transition from American individualism.

Wednesday evening’s English Conversation Club was certainly the most lively session I’ve had to date with my students, as we discussed questions on “What Would You Do If…” and covered topics on leadership and corruption. The conversation could have continued for many more hours, and I was humored by the frank and candid manner in which students approached these issues.

Thursday morning, I assisted at examination sessions. After a semester-long average of 15-20 students in attendance at our course, 52 students showed up for the exam. I was rather stunned, to say the least. I still haven’t quite grasped how flexible the attendance policy is here in Romania, but when students have schedules are made for them with 8-11 different classes per week (compared to our U.S. average of 3-6), it’s nearly understandable. All the same, it was quite disconcerting to be administering an exam to students who had never once attended the course before. This disconcerted feeling didn’t last too long, as our second session of students included a group of second-year Economics students that had consistently attended the class throughout the semester, and with whom we had shared some truly encouraging moments.

Soon after the exams, I was off to Cluj Napoca to attend my uncle’s wedding on Saturday, thanks to a dear friend that happened to be in town and offered to give me a ride all the way across the country. I find that instances such as these truly reaffirm that you’ve made real friends. Our 5-hour ride flew by (on one of Romania’s few proper highways) as we chatted about Romania’s culture, educational system, and issues that the youth face here – a lot of it stemmed from my conversation with my students the previous evening. For those that don’t know, 1 out of 7 Romanians have left the country. Romania’s diaspora around the world totals around 6-8 million (around 600,000 in the US alone). For a country of 19 million people, that’s quite a significant proportion. Many here are frustrated by stagnant internal reforms and endemic corruption. And they have every right to be. However, many Romanians have succumbed to the gneral expression “Asta e – This is what it is.” Understandably, they’re overwhelmed by the numerous issues that they face to the point where they feel apathetic.

But as Dr. Seuss once said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The feeling of being overhelmed mustn’t give way to futility and apathy, but unfortunately in many people, it has. Hope lies with those who despite the challenges, rise to address what they can, given the circumstances. Hope particularly lies with the youth who believe in their voices, causes, and are equipped to address the myriad of issues that their generation faces. That has been one of the many takeaways I’ve gained from this semester.

As the first Fulbrighter to Arad, there was no precedent for my experience here. In these past three months, I have been reminded that it is not the quantity of things that I have checked off that counts, but rather the quality of the investment in the people and relationships that I have encountered that matters most.

Some of these smaller but significant victories include helping high school students successfully apply for university studies in the UK, creating a safe space for students to practice English on a weekly basis – a space where we learn together, and developing friendships and relations that will endure far beyond this semester. Beyond getting to know the city through cultural events, museum visits and researches into its history, attending city hall meetings and meandering down unexplored corners – to know that I have created lasting relationships and impressions is truly the most valuable thing I will take away from this experience.

Saturday Classes in Sebis

Saturday Classes in Sebis

Today, I accompanied my professor to Saturday English courses for university students in Sebis, a town about 50 miles northeast of Arad. Our day began at 8am with a pleasant drive through village after village in the wine region of Arad County – villages with names like Sâmbateni, Ghioroc, Cuvin, Covăsânț, Siria, Pâncota, and on towards Ineu. The vibrant summer landscapes of golden wheat and sunflower fields were replaced by a layer of snow, and a fresher layer began to lightly cover the old as we drove.

We had low expectations of student attendance – perhaps 3 or 4 students at most. We were pleasantly surprised to have 15 1st and 2nd year students of Business and Economics show up. Over the course of the hour, we discussed and dissected concepts found the TEDx video on “3 Ways to (usefully) lose control of your brand” by Tim Leberecht. Most of the students were at least 30 years of age and held a variety of professional positions in the region, both in the private and public sector. They had no shortage of insight to offer, which testified to their veritable acquired professional experience in Romania. It was markedly different compared to our weekly experiences with mostly 18-year old students, whose relatively meager experiences had given them little substantive opinions to proffer.

As we spent the hours discussing the applicability of the concepts shared in the video in Romania, it was certainly a lesson where I felt like I learned more than the students.

Here were the business people, managers, and entrepreneurs of the region providing a looking-glass into Romanian workplace culture. I learned and reaffirmed several truths about the business environment here, most especially, that in Romania, small business is all about close personal relationships. Indeed, because it’s all more personal, it requires a high degree of honesty and transparency, because one’s name is on the line. This works well for small businesses; however, large organizations by nature tend to be impersonal and give workers a certain degree of anonymity and license to hide or excuse their personal (morally deficient) behavior behind the mask of an impersonal institution. Personal relationships are important for larger business as well, particularly among the well-networked elites. One of the students shared their own experience of owning a car wash business. In their town, their neighbors and friends – their customers – knew them by name not by brand. When their neighbors would go to get their cars washed, they would say “Merg la Nicu si la Dinu, nu la Spalatoria ABC Srl.” – I’m going to Dinu and Nicu, not Carwash ABC Co. If they did a lousy job, their professional, and more importantly, their personal reputations were at stake.

Some of the vocalized sentiments reflected the more jaded cynicism shared by many Romanians: “Daca esti bun esti luat de prost.” Translated, that is to say that “if you are good you are taken as a simpleton.” This feeling resonates among many Romanians, who feel that hard work and being good at something simply isn’t enough to succeed. Moreover, you might end up being used and abused by your colleagues for your industriousness, and you can be seen as overzealous, officious, or even impertinent in some cases. The Romanian system of PCR still thrives (the former initials of the Communist Party, now derisively referred to as Pile, Cunostinte, si Relatii – acquaintances, relations, and intercessions), in which one can succeed in life through the people they know: to bypass bureaucratic procedures; to gain entrance to schools, workplaces, and high-level positions; etc. It ultimately affirms the power of networking for survival here. It’s not what you know, but rather who you know that will ultimately allow one to succeed. Nepotism, plagiarism, corruption all run rampant in the private and public spheres. I use the term survival specifically, because it’s the survivalist mentality that has caused Romania to remain so morally depraved from a professional perspective.

As one student said, “The level of poverty must drop so that the level of morality can rise.”

In a country where the minimum salary is expected to rise from 1,250 to 1,450 lei per month (from $300 to $350 dollars roughly), it’s not difficult to see why one might feel compelled to seek devious means to augment their income or simply get a leg up in life. With a survivalist mentality comes a certain degree of unprediactability: rules and laws are numerous and tedious to follow, while ethical norms are absent in organizational culture. To quote another student, “[giving people less control] might be applicable in other countries, but not in Romania. It could be so in Germany, because people are more or less standardized there,” in reference to their well-planned, structured, and orderly professional attributes. Meanwhile, Romanians tend to see less control as an invitation to shirk their work. “The Romanian mentality is the problem,” he stated.

While the students were concerned that they left me a negative impression, they assured me that they would rather have me “see things for how they are,” rather than give off a false impression. I was grateful for their open honesty, for I have witnessed enough of these truths for myself during my 5 months here so far.

Afterwards, we were endlessly entreated by Radu, a doctoral student aged around 50-some years old to come over to his place. Once we arrived, he took us straight upstairs to his office, where he had prepared a small table upon which he brought endless rounds of meats. The room was decorated with Moroccan rugs, tapestries from the Sahara hung on a wall, and books upon books sat aligned in a bookcase along the other wall, which also contained memorabilia from throughout Europe. Radu was himself was quite the character.

His classic look seemed to have remained unchanged throughout the years, his angular face framed by a thick set of square glasses and a Magnum PI mustache.

His words came faster than I could comprehend. He was undoubtedly brilliant: having finished over 5 university degrees from civil engineering, medical school, international relations, and now history, he jumped from story to story in his life. One moment he spoke of how in 1975, he visited Napoleon’s tomb at the

Dôme des Invalideswhile the next, he spoke of his palinca-making escapades as a boy living in Morocco. (Note: palinca is a home-made fruit brandy typical in the Ardeal region of Romania.) Amongst other things, he hadn’t eaten a piece of cake in over 20 years and runs at least 17 kilometers a day, sometimes at odd hours of the night. A few years ago, he also participated in a marathon. He noted that two things disappointed him most: firstly, that he only signed up for the 2km race rather than the 6km race, and secondly, that no one was waiting in support for him at the finish line. Radu seemed to have a lot in life, and he was eager to share to it with others. Moreover, he was especially eager to share his food with us, as he kept imploring us to eat more. When we announced that we had better get on, he jumped to ensure that we take food with us, as we had eaten a disappointingly small portion of the feast he had spread before us. Even on our way out, his 82 year old aunt chimed “nu-ii lasa sa plece” (don’t let them leave) as she packed boxes of meats and cake to take with us. Such is the old-style generous Romanian hospitality, that urges you to imbibe with food and drink until you can’t move and then sends you off with more for the road.

We started on the road toward Moneasa, a mountain resort 19km away, but the snowfall became more and more dense. Rather than risk being snowed in on the mountain, we decided to turn back towards home. On the way, we stopped at Moara cu Noroc, a large and well-known traditional restaurant in the area with an amusingly written menu in the local country slang. After another (relatively light) 3-course meal, we waddled back to the car for the journey back toward Arad. By this time, the snowfall had abated and the sun had broken through the grey, making for a most wondrous golden pink sunset, which we just had to stop and capture on the way.

There truly is no “ordinary” day here. All that to say, it was a most unexpected and wonderful day. Thank you to Profs. Cristi and Laura for making it all happen.

Merry Christmas with love, from Romania

Merry Christmas with love, from Romania

It’s the mid-afternoon of December 27th, coming off a 3-day Christmas celebration with family, friends, and a lot of Christmas caroling throughout the nights here in Cluj Napoca, Romania.

This holiday season, I’ve been graced by the presence of my little sister who came over to Romania since I couldn’t go back home for the holidays. (The citizenship issues are nearly resolved – my Romanian passport will be issued tomorrow as a belated Christmas gift to end my undocumented, “illegal” residency here. Glory to the Highest.)

Nevertheless, the prospect of spending the holidays away from home pressed upon me throughout the days leading up to Christmas, as the thought of being absent from the usual family preparations and festivities pierced my present expectancy and dampened my spirits. Being used to having over 100 people come over for the holidays and organizing parties and gatherings to now not having a home to invite anyone to made me rather feel like a placeless wanderer for these holidays. Gone were my usual preparations spending hours glamming up a Christmas tree, rushing around malls for days to find the perfect presents for an entire family, making sure all the invites have been sent and confimred, cleaning and setting up an entire house, and wondering if I “did enough” to celebrate the season properly.

As the song and well-known saying goes, “there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It’s true, the idea of home seems more idyllic than ever during the holidays. However, unrequited longing for home did not overcome. Instead, I learned to cherish the very sentiment of missing others (what a blessing it is to have dear ones to say that you miss, and what a privilege it is to know that you yourself occupy such a place in the hearts of others) and to open my heart to the beauty to be found in the present circumstance.

“Wherever you go, there you are.” While I dearly miss my family and friends back home this season, how grateful I am to have and to have found family wherever I have gone thus far. Between family visitations to grandparents and more distant cousins, and evenings spent with friends new and old amidst a backdrop of new scenery, I am deeply grateful for the families that have taken me in and for the time spent with others. These are new memories being made, adding to the breadth and depth of life experience. This is the here and now. It’s not “letting go”, but rather “letting grow” – letting your heart grow into and cherish the moment and people with whom you find yourself. You can grow in wonderful new ways when you open up your heart to the present moment.

If there’s anything that I’m more deeply recognizing now, it’s that more than anything, Christmas is a celebration of the heart. The very “spirit of Christmas” is the heart’s celebration of the truest Light and Love that mankind has ever known coming down to us so that we may become partakers of hope and live out love every day. May we carry that Light forward as we press towards a new year.