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Feature 25 Jan 18

Corruption Protests Bring Out Creative Streak in Romania

A year after the Romania’s biggest anti-corruption protests started, activists have found new, more creative, ways to make themselves heard.

Ana Maria Luca
BIRN
Bucharest
Silent protest in Romania's Sibiu. Photo: Courtesy of Va Vedem din Sibiu/Facebook.

Every year, on January 24, Romanians mark the foundation of the modern Romanian state by holding hands and doing the traditional Romanian “unity round dance”, singing a song written by a famous poet in 1859 on the day Moldavia became united with Wallachia.

But on Wednesday night, on the 159th anniversary of the Romanian modern state, the traditional round dance was different.

This time, scores of anti-corruption activists danced in front of the government headquarters on behalf of “independent, politically non-aligned justice, and against corrupt and criminal politicians.”

It was just the latest idea that Romanian anti-corruption activists came up with, to keep their voices loud and heard.

The protest took place days after tens of thousands of Romanians demonstrated on Saturday against a push by the ruling Social Democrats to modify several justice and anti-graft laws – despite warnings from international institutions and foreign diplomats that the changes threaten the rule of law.

Romanians have been taking to the streets for a year now, to demonstrate against the Social Democrats’ plans to curb anti-graft prosecutors’ influence.

But, a year on, Romanian activists say that they felt they needed to come up with new ways to put more pressure on politicians and make their voices heard.

Silent protests have an echo:

Since mid-December, every day at noon, scores of people in Sibiu, Transylvania, have gathered in the “Free-of-Corruption” Zone” in front of the local Social Democrat Party office to just stare at the building in silence, holding a #vavedem banner, [Romanian for “We can see you”].

Activists in Sibiu started the silent “Free-of-Corruption zone” sit-in last December, inspired by the Occupy Movement.

“Some of the protesters in Sibiu had started to get the impression that classic protests and marches had lost the interest of politicians, and that we weren’t putting enough pressure on them,” Radu Vancu, one of the organizers, told BIRN.

The sit-in stopped for Romanian ex-King Michael I’s funeral, and later turned into the current flash mob.

Vancu says the move did not draw an explicit reaction from the local Social Democrat politicians, but did get the attention of the national media, with television stations broadcasting their silent protest live every day.

The idea also spread to 15 other towns and cities across Romania, including the capital, Bucharest, and even in some European capitals, where activists have also been protesting in support of the rule of law in Romania.

The latest silent protest in Bucharest was on Sunday, January 21, when around 100 people, some wearing blindfolds, turned their backs on the government headquarters and stayed silent, without moving, for 20 minutes.

Similar protests took place in parallel in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Russia and Hungary.

Long ‘March of Hope’ to Bucharest:

A horticulturist and a French farmer living in Transylvania’s main city, Cluj Napoca, made headlines last week meanwhile, after they marched 450 kilometers to Bucharest to participate in the rally on January 20.

Sorin Bobis and Alexandre Lacaille walked for 11 days, all the way to the capital, carrying Romanian flags.

Their protest attracted many supporters on the way and scores joined their “March of Hope.”

The groups posted regular pictures and videos from their itinerary, to prove that they were walking the entire time.

Their initiative also motivated many Romanians from different towns and cities to head to Bucharest for the anti-corruption demonstration on January 20.

However, the spotlight also brought risks. Both Bobis and Lacaille told the media on Tuesday that during their trip they had received phone calls from a man who had threatened their families.

Bobis said they had not reported this to the police immediately, because they would have had to stop their trip.

“In my French friend’s case, [the man] threatened his family and also called his wife to tell her he knew where she lived and where their daughter went to kindergarten,” he explained.

During 2017, Bucharest central Victoriei Square was also host to several smaller but creative protests.

Alex & the Fat Pinguins, an Indie alternative rock band, was fined around 330 euros for playing in front of the government building to protest against the justice bill and another 150 euros for ignoring traffic rules.

One of the band members told the media he was a part of the Rezist movement.

Before heading to Bucharest on January 20, a group of protesters from Brasov, in central Romania, also held a silent “thumb-down protest” on January 13 in front of the Social Democratic Party office.

Protests now include civic education classes:

Activists in both Sibiu and Bucharest told BIRN that their movement has been developing into more than street protests.

As Vancu explained, in Sibiu, besides the silent protests, the activists have also been organizing civic education events, which they call “agoras”, to which they invite experts to talk about justice and rule of law.

“We want to develop that in the future, because we feel that a real civic education needs to include both components – political reactions and educating the community,” he pointed out.

Vancu also feels that the Romanian civic movement has been growing and maturing and matches the creativity of some members of the political class who have learned how to use the system to their advantage.

“We’ve evolved from the [environmentalist] ‘romantic protests’ over Rosia Montana [where a mine was to be built], when activists’ gestures were limited to plastic bottles filled with gravel, to today’s more sophisticated and more efficient tactics,” Vancu said. 

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