INTERVIEW #52 — Protests and memory politics in Romania

In this interview, Ionut Chiruta explains how the memory of Romania’s Communist past has been used to protect and justify a corrupt system. Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, chose to exploit the traumatic memories linked to the secret police —Securitate— that for decades terrorized the population, to justify his judicial reforms. These reforms had one main purpose: to decriminalize the government’s corruption. To achieve this, Dragnea delegitimized the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) by comparing it to the Securitate system. Dragnea consciously manipulated the country’s collective memories to create a short-circuit that protects his system of corruption by linking his enemies to the most traumatic aspects of the Communist past. A great lesson about the importance of collective memories and the politics of memory, between collective amnesia and dealing with the past.

Enjoy the read.

POP) Before we talk of the latest developments of Romanian politics and populism, let’s have some context. Can you tell us about the numerous protests against the Romanian Government between 2017 and 2019? What originated them, and what outcome did they have?

Ionut Chiruta) The 2017-2019 protests have indeed rocked Romania and reached the headlines of international media. Their origin goes back to 2015, in particular to the protests that followed the Colectiv Night Club fire. This incident killed more than 60 people and prompted massive protests across Romania. For the first time since the fall of Communism, Romanians did not protest for something material, physical, or substantial. Instead, one ought to acknowledge that Romanians protested for the first time for an idea: corruption, if passively accepted, kills with impunity. The Colectiv protests served as a blueprint for the demonstrations of 2017-2019.

In 2016, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Romania’s biggest political party, won the elections with 45% of the vote share. Because of the Colectiv fire, PSD, alongside the other parties, agreed to allow a technocratic government to govern Romania until January 20, 2017. During the election campaign they enticed the public with the idea that the ‘rule of law is good, but does not feed the people; therefore, it needs to be changed.’ After the transition period, PSD’s new Government introduced the famous emergency ordinance No. 13, that decriminalized various offenses like abuse of power. The following events prompted the biggest protests Romania has ever seen in its democratic period.

During 2017-2019, a novel partnership between civil society and the people, made possible by social media platforms, brought into the streets circa 600,000 people across Romania. Later, on August 13, 2018, also the Romanian diaspora protested against corruption: the police violently crushed their rally. To this day, legal inquiries are prevented in Romanian courts to determine who was behind the violent suppression of the peaceful protests. Only recently, the trial has been reopened.

What determined Romanians to rally was corruption. In particular, the idea that specific individuals, like the former chairman of PSD Liviu Dragnea, are not above the law. After Romania entered into the European Union, the judiciary was perceived by the people as its best shield against elements that represented the Communist era and prevented Romania from implementing Western ideals such as rule of law. In 2017-2019, tens of thousands of people protested against the new power of the PSD. However, like in Poland and Hungary, the leading party implemented a series of laws that denied the judiciary’s independence and instituted new courts, like the Special Section, to investigate magistrates. Had it not been for the EU, the United States Embassy, and the possibility of feeling the full weight of Article 7, the independence of the judiciary would have been totally undermined and Romania would have followed the illiberal journey of Poland and Hungary.

In one of his last tweets before being arrested for corruption, Liviu Dragnea talked about his meeting with the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić. We already talked about him here.

POP) Who is Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the Social Democratic Party between 2015 and 2019, later sent to prison, and what has been his role?

IC) Liviu Dragnea is an interesting political character that resembles the evolution of would-be authoritarians from South America. Born in one of the poorest counties of Romania, Alexandria, Dragnea’s trajectory in Romanian politics is a journey peppered with pragmatism, ingenuity, and slyness. Dragnea waved his passageway in the Social Democratic party’s echelons by first becoming president of the Teleorman County Council (2000-2012), Interior Minister in 2009, chairman of PSD in 2015, and President of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies in 2016. Such a trajectory, one would think, is either the product of luck and ambition or of well-thought maneuvers of a good schemer. Either way, the conduit of a Romanian politician who tasted the grapes of success at such a tender age is the product of corruption, especially in the period of EU accession when big money for infrastructure projects and reforms were pouring in Romania.

Throughout his career, Dragnea was accused of embezzlement, fraud with the EU funds, and abuse of office. Dragnea’s career in the ranks of the Social Democratic Party is no surprise, as a good proportion of politicians from this party were indicted by the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). Yet, for me, it is Dragnea’s trajectory to the chairmanship of PSD in 2015 the most striking. He reached this status when the Ponta government resigned after the Colectiv tragedy. Following the literature on populism, a charismatic, good organizer emerges onto the political scene and provides solutions to a political crisis. However, there is one caveat to this story. The man who arose as a standard-bearer is haunted by a criminal record and prosecution from the judiciary. That should be a big concern for the biggest party in Romania.

By the looks of it, it did not matter if Dragnea had a criminal record, as countless PSD’s bigwigs faced the same charges. In essence, Dragnea became their salvation: in 2016-2019, Dragnea championed the fight against anti-corruption to avoid prosecution and incarceration. His Justice Ministers proposed and implemented bills that were designed to save Dragnea from prosecution. To demonstrate Dragnea’s strength during his tenure, the High Court of Cassation and Justice waited until the aftermath of the European election on May 27, 2019, to see if the public would cast Dragnea out. As it turned out, they did. On that day, Dragnea’s extraordinary pressure on the judiciary achieved two things: A) the lowest percentage that the PSD ever took in elections (22%); and B) his incarceration. Had the vote been differently during elections, could one fathom a different turnout for Dragnea?

POP) To understand the discourses around today’s corruption and rule of law, we need to take another step back into Romania’s judicial past. Can you tell us what was the Communist-era Securitate? Why did it provoke a cultural trauma and is deeply linked to the Romanian collective identity?

IC) The Communist-era Securitate was the state police of former chairman Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Securitate was the equivalent of the Stasi from Eastern Europe. Take “The Lives of Others” (2006): the film displays how the secret police from the former DDR worked, i.e., wiretaps, interceptions, framing political opponents, locking up political dissidents and people who shared ‘dangerous’ ideas. The same goes for the Romanian Securitate, only tenfold higher. It had a huge apparatus of agents who accused people of being Western spies, anti-party individuals, or simply cherishing other ideals than the socialist ones. The Romanian Securitate was established by Soviet politicians, who imposed their worldview into Romania after the Second World War. Securitate has two periods. From 1948 until 1965, it was a vicious organization that committed tens of thousands of crimes. After Ceaușescu became the Secretary of the Communist Party in Romania in 1965, Securitate’s violence downgraded. Instead, it focused more on intercepted communications, manufactured criminal records, and prosecutions for everyone who voiced different opinions. At its height in the 80s, it had between 400,000 and 600,000 informers whose only job was to find someone guilty of something. If you had an issue with your neighbour during those days, everything was solved with a complaint to the Securitate office, provided that the neighbour did not reach their office first.

In many ways, the trauma of Securitate rests on the experiences of people from that period. The reports of the informants sentenced thousands of people to prison and labour camps: getting out of these facilities alive was very unlikely. The idea of being reported scared the whole population, everyone was well aware of what to utter in public and even amongst friends and family members. Surprisingly, this distrust is still present today and many people are very careful when they speak in front of colleagues for fear of consequences at the hands of assertive bosses. Whistle-blowers can point out corruption deeds, legal discrepancies, and non-ethical practices, but they are mostly avoided because of the Big Brother mechanism that instilled distrust and fear under the Securitate. To my mind, this culture survived the fall of Communism.

POP) How did post-communist Romania create a myth about Securitate? Was it done by silencing the past through a process of amnesia? Or was it rather done by confronting and coming to terms with the past?

IC) In many ways, the Securitate myth preserved itself through a mixture of amnesia and dealing with the past. In the aftermath of the Communist regime, many people had the idea that democracy can be incorporated in Romania. These were deceived, for the Communist apparatchiks, supported by Securitate officials, hijacked the Revolution and changed their emperor clothes into democratic attires. Many of these Securitate officials became ministers, police officers, and some even preserved their high-raking mantles in the new State Intelligence units. Others, driven by greed, became financiers, businesspeople. Taking advantage of the post-Revolution economy, many hijacked state companies into their own hands and dried these down shortly thereafter. So, in many ways, the Securitate myth preserved itself tacitly. People could see that even under the new democratic regime, the same people handled the state’s affairs and had all the money and resources into their own hands.

Simultaneously, the myth of Securitate was removed from public discourse. Romania silenced the past through a process of amnesia. This was convenient for academics, journalists, intellectuals, and even new politicians who did not have much to do with Communism and Securitate. Had they been prosecuted by the democratic regime, they would have lost their position, prestige, and perhaps, their income. In a society where almost all politicians had something to do with Communism and Securitate, amnesia was the preferred way to deal with the memory of the past.

Interestingly, the prospects of entering NATO and the EU made it possible for Romania to deal with its past. In the region, only Albania had come to terms with its past later than Romania. The politics of amnesia brought many benefits, but the desire and pressure to come to terms with the past eventually prevailed. In 2006, former president Traian Basescu called Vladimir Tismăneanu, a professor at Maryland University, to set up a task force to investigate the Communist regime. Despite many obstacles, the commission’s final report was damning for many politicians, business people, military, and police officers. Many were connected officially with the Communist regime, and, by consequence, their image was stained. After the Tismăneanu report, several institutions were created to investigate the regime’s crimes and reveal to the public the Securitate informants. One of these ad-hoc institutions is the National Council for Studying the Securitate Archives (CNSAS). The investigations and reports of these institutions brought to the public’s attention many public figures who, in the past, had been Securitate’s informants. One of them was the mogul Dan Voiculescu, the owner of Intact Media Group. Perhaps, in the recent history of Romania under democracy, no one sabotaged democratic reforms more than Voiculescu. Through his TV networks, the most notorious of them being Antena 3 (the equivalent of Fox News), Voiculescu sabotaged reforms in the judicial and medical systems, and infested the public discourse with conspiracy theories while pushing naitonalist, anti-EU narratives. The networks of Voiculescu were behind Liviu Dragnea until the latter got arrested. Voiculescu got his fortune in the post-Communist era in ways that were suspicious in the eyes of the judicial system. Well, the apple does not fall far from the tree in Romania.

Yes, this happened too, see the article here.

POP) In this scenario, you studied how political strategies were developed to mix a populist rhetoric with memory issues. In particular, how a populist rhetoric created a new hegemonic narrative of the judiciary system, by insisting on the memory of the former Securitate. In what sense is it a populist narrative? Who created this hegemonic narrative, and why?

IC) To impose a new hegemonic narrative of the judiciary, populism needed a favourable context. In this case a protagonist (i.e., a politician) prosecuted for corruption by the antagonists (i.e., prosecutors from the National Anti-Corruption Directorate – DNA). Mandated by the adherence of Romania to the EU and supported by the European Commission, the DNA brought down many important high-profile figures, including the former prime minister and chairman of the PSD, Adrian Năstase. The DNA prosecuted many PSD members because, as other studies imply, the PSD was in power for most of the democratic age and its members were more likely to be involved in corruption. This is evidenced by the election of Liviu Dragnea at the helm of PSD in 2015. Despite his criminal record, Dragnea was elected as chairman because his judicial issues resembled the other members’ troubles.

The myth of Securitate was preserved tacitly and through amnesia for a long time, until Dragnea needed the support of the people to change the judiciary system. He achieved this by creating a false identification between Securitate and DNA. The fact that both agencies used surveillance tools and prosecuted people for various purposes, made it possible to imply that these two institutions are, in fact, one and the same. This juxtaposition, obsessively repeated in the public debate, activated popular memories about traumatic experiences. Memory is the link that provides the framework that makes one remember and empathize with a politician’s current judicial anguish. This is how Liviu Dragnea instrumentalized the memory of Securitate to amend the judicial system in Romania.

POP) You observe that memory politics is a flexible procedure. Who wants whom to remember what, and why, is a key element of collective identity and the legitimacy of power. What are the short- and long-term consequences of this populist narrative about the Romanian judiciary system?

IC) Indeed, memory politics is a flexible procedure, especially in Romania. Most agree that the Romanian political debate is not about ideology, but rather about the rule of law and anti-corruption. In Romania, for example, the Social Democrats are tilting towards the right, becoming increasingly nationalist, against LGBTQ unions, and in favour of the Church. In contrast, the right is increasingly becoming socially democratic. Within this ideological vacuum, all the mainstream parties from both aisles are interested in memory politics, trying to push different narratives for their own benefit.

For example, in Hungary, Orban keeps promising that the future will look like the past. For this to happen, FIDESZ cherry-picked a timeframe suitable for their needs, i.e., Greater Hungary before 1920, which is abundant in meaningful symbolism. Dragnea wants the public to remember traumatic memories linked to Communism, suggesting that the present is too similar to the past and thereby needs to be changed. Dragnea’s ultimate aim was for everybody to accept his narratives about the judiciary, i.e., the Securitate is now the DNA. Fortunately, the anti-corruption idea is strongly rooted in Romania. After all, it unleashed the greatest protests in the country’s modern history. But what happens to all those (older) people that night after night, in front of the TV, have been infused with narratives that built a paranoid identification between the Securitate and the DNA?

The long-term consequences of Dragnea’s strategy are more significant than the short-term ones, because political mandates can resolve the short-term outcomes, but it takes time to change ideas and attitudes. And since the mistakes of the DNA have been leaked to the press, it is understandable that people tend to share Dragnea’s narratives. For that not to happen, the judiciary needs to be independent and handed to professionals who were schooled in Western Europe or the United States. Romania does not need to follow the footsteps of Hungary and Poland. Also, all the Security Services need to be regulated by oversight committees. The Romanian Security Services are the only institutions in Romania that have not been regulated since 1989. Sounds familiar?

Romanian Revolution, 1989, Bucharest.

POP) In December 2020, the PSD won again the elections while a new right-wing populist party, AUR, came 4th with over 9% of the vote share (we talked about it here). In the meantime, every year more than 38.6 billion – nearly 16 per cent of the country’s GDP – are lost to corruption. How will Romanian democracy develop in the next years, and what role will populism play in the political debate?

IC) Indeed, the PSD had never lost a parliamentary election, also because Romanians have weird electoral behaviours. For instance, since 2004, the PSD has never won the Presidential elections. Every time, the anti-PSD electorate mobilized, both domestically and abroad, to vote for the opposition. Romanians have historically been reluctant to vote in parliamentary elections, despite being the most important election in the country. This may be explained by the low levels of trust in this institution: 11%.

In these circumstances, the huge political machine of the PSD can mobilize its resources through its cronies and summon its electorate to vote. The opposition is not inspiring trust because its members share the same lust for corruption. Take, for instance, the case of the National Liberal Party (PNL). After winning the presidential elections in November 2019, they filled many positions from the National Directorate of Forests (ROMSILVA) or National Administration of Romanian Waters with their cronies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside PNL’s disagreement with the powerful Romanian Orthodox Church and sloppy management of the pandemic situations, PNL and USR-Plus lost many voters to PSD and AUR. The latter is an interesting example of a nationalist, neofascist party, which caters strong homophobic and anti-ethnic narratives. Much of PSD’s conservative electorate preferred AUR in 2020. Historically, after 1989, far-right parties like Greater Romania (PRM) have succumbed to internal fights, political incoherence, and a general inability to produce modern political discourses. It remains to be seen whether AUR will be able to resist internal upheavals. Certainly, AUR’s political discourse, which is borderline populism, will affect the whole Romanian political scene. That is why a cordon sanitaire ought to be adopted. The fact that PSD is inclined to negotiate with AUR says a lot about PSD’s tilt towards the right in recent years.  

Meanwhile, Romania is hemorrhaging from corruption. This could be stopped by securing the independence of judicial institutions. But Romania is also hemorrhaging from emigration, which, in the long run, might cost the country more than 100 billion euros if the current trend continues.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. For instance, the pandemic brought almost 600,000 back to the country. The state needs to enforce labour policies to retain these people home with attractive incomes and the possibility of a fruitful career. Secondly, Romania needs to integrate its large Roma population. Currently estimated by the Council of Europe at around 2 million, the Roma are increasingly marginalized and discriminated. Their integration into the labour market and education can have incredible effects on the economy.

As far as the political discourse goes, populism is here to stay. Depending on how it is absorbed, it can act as a corrective for democracy, but it can also be toxic. Populist narratives can be mitigated in Romania if the percentage of functional illiteracy decreases significantly.With 42% of the population that people can read and write to a certain degree, but cannot understand what they read, it is difficult to contrast populism.

Concerning the development of democracy in Romania, I am very optimistic. The democratic ideal is deep-rooted in the Romanian consciousness. This was proved during the 2015 Colectiv Night Club protests, during the 2017 protests against the amendment of the penal code, during the diaspora protests in 2018, during the vote for the European parliament in 2019, and during the Presidential election the same year. All these examples indicate that the people no longer tolerate the undemocratic methods used in the past. Romania’s large diaspora is also crucial in this respect. Romanians abroad have been in contact democratic ideals and clearly endorse them. They should be listened to and attracted home so that they can contribute to what is now a popular chant during the protests: “Vrem o țară ca afară” – “We want a country like those from abroad.”


Ionut Chiruta is a Ph.D. candidate at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu and a Marie Curie-Skłodowska fellow in Project FATIGUE (Delayed Transformational Fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to the Rise of Populism). Ionut is also a researcher affiliated to the Helsinki University’s project Now-Time, US Space Hegemonic mobilization in Central and Eastern Europe. His doctoral thesis wants to reveal how populism shapes Romanian politics and reconstructs the memory and political identity of the Hungarian minority. Ionut has a MAc in Media Studies from the Universitetet I Oslo and a BAc in Communication from the Cuza University.

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