Protest, Vote, Repeat – How the Romanian Diaspora Revolutionized Politics at Home

by Geanina Ţurcanu & Anamaria Iuga

With 3.6 million citizens abroad, the Romanian diaspora is the fifth largest in the world. Following the fall of communism, and particularly since EU accession in 2007, the country has experienced a massive exodus.

“In The Night, Like Thieves!” (“Noaptea, Ca Hotii!”)

In 2017, under special safeguard measures ensuring heightened attention to the rule of law, and just as the established democracies of the West faced their own troubles with populism, it was the Romanians themselves who steadfastly embraced European values against their own corrupt, rent-seeking elites. “Hands off their DNA!,” wrote The Economist, referring to a popular chant for the National Anticorruption Directorate, the key institution in prosecuting high profile cases of corruption.

To an extraordinary degree, this fight for the rule of law was echoed by the diaspora across Europe and even beyond. Beginning in 2017, Romanians in Vienna demonstrated for three hours every evening for weeks in a row, sometimes at -5 degrees Celsius, which felt like -15 degrees. “Transparent governance!” was the demand, remembers Valentin, then a music student. “This applies to both citizens and the political class, though back then we were only protesting the Social-Democratic leadership.” What had brought hundreds of thousands to the streets was an emergency decree on January 31, pardoning corrupt officials and decriminalizing official misconduct up to roughly €40,000 (200,000 lei), which would have exonerated the Social-Democratic leader charged with abuse of power.

“You have succeeded in uniting us!” read many banners. It was an iconic moment, Valentin recalled: The accumulated fury against systemic injustice at home found a shared civic expression abroad. Rallies peaked with what became known as the Revolution of Light, gathering 300,000 on Victory Square, and another 300,000 across the country, according to and other publications. On the square, an ocean of peaceful protesters with mobile phone lights burning like candles against the night sky made the cover pages of the largest media outlets. “The day we give in is the day we die,” chanted the crowd, quoting lyrics by the band Goodbye to Gravity, who had been on stage when a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest in 2015 and four of its five members lost their lives.

So the 2017 protests were not the first. The devastating Colectiv nightclub fire – that killed 64 and injured 147 in all – had revealed severe code violations and a deadly lack of coordination among public health authorities. This tragic event, which Romanians blamed on widespread, corruption-induced paralysis, forced the Social-Democratic prime minister to step down.

The Viennese Romanians continued holding regular public events for another year. Melania, a former jurist and published poet, joined forces for the same reason she decided to leave Romania in the ’90s. While elsewhere in Eastern Europe former communist officials were banned under special “Lustration laws,” in Romania, Ceausescu-style apparatchiks took center stage.

“When Injustice Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty!”

On August 10, 2018, the diaspora joined forces again and many traveled to Romania in solidarity with a follow-up “diaspora protest” against corruption, anticipating one million on Bucharest’s Victory Square. The tens of thousands who showed up were “greeted” with the most brutal repression since the 1990s. Gendarmerie and riot police cleared the square with water cannons, spraying tear gas at peaceful protesters, children, the elderly, journalists and tourists. Among the 400 wounded was an Austrian media crew. This triggered a UN investigation, while the government defended the intervention as legal and stood its ground.

“I had never imagined a well-governed state or city before I came to Vienna. I didn’t know that there wasn’t supposed to be a thick layer of ice on the streets each winter, that buses should run on schedule, that schools and institutions should be heated,” said Anca, then a law student. Melania also blames corruption for the massive emigration – between 2010-2015, the second largest increase after Syria, a country in the midst of devastating war. “This incompetence becomes your normal state of affairs, so deeply embedded that you do not even realize it should be changed,” added Anca. Amidst skyrocketing inequality, wealthy urban bubbles and private health care and school, “we still have kids going tens of kilometers to school, with no heating or functioning toilets; people with disabilities completely forgotten by the system, the LGBTQ community face bullying and discrimination every day.”

(C) Wikimedia Commons

“We Want to Vote!” (“Vrem Să Votăm!”)

Until recently, the Romanian diaspora had a long tradition of fragmentation and distrust, fueled by the political climate in Bucharest, especially during the communist regime and the years immediately following. The inflection point was the 2009 Presidential election, when the diaspora saw that its voice mattered: The “self-declared” winner, the Social Democrat front-runner, woke up to a bitter and humiliating defeat. The diaspora votes had overturned the final results, making the Liberal Democratic incumbent the winner. For all major elections to follow, Romanians from all walks of life lined up at polling stations abroad to cast their votes – for the presidential elections (2014, 2019), legislative (2016), or European Parliament (2019).

Diaspora votes were decisive again in the 2014 presidential election. Too few polling stations and procedural bottlenecks left many unable to vote, despite waiting in line for more than 10 hours – reminding older voters of communist times, which had them queuing for bread and other essentials. Angered, they shouted out their disapproval: “We want to vote.”

The two polling places in Vienna – the embassy and the Romanian Cultural Institute – were overwhelmed. Hundreds were left standing outside, chatting with their fellow citizens and drinking tea distributed by volunteers. Approximately 100 Romanians were not able to vote, despite being in the voting station premises at the appointed time for closure. In other European cities the numbers were even higher.

The results required a runoff between Victor Ponta (SDP), prime minister in office, and Klaus Iohannis (LDP). For two weeks in between, Romanians in Bucharest and other cities demanded fair elections abroad. The diaspora followed suit in several European cities, and in New York. In the runoff election, the diaspora turnout reached a record high of over 370,000.

In Vienna, additional voting booths and a more orderly process, led by the Romanian Embassy and supported by volunteers, allowed everyone to cast their votes. After the final count, Klaus Iohannis became the first non-Christian-Orthodox and non-ethnically Romanian elected president in Romania’s history. This was also seen as a clear sign of distancing from the nationalistic politics that dominated much of Central Europe.

The year 2019 was marked by two major elections: The European Parliamentary in May and the presidential in December. The European Parliamentary elections also coincided with an anti-corruption referendum initiated by President Iohannis. The high stakes for the referendum led to a high turnout both in Romania and abroad. Once again, the polling stations were inadequate and hundreds were not able to vote, despite waiting in line for most of the day.

That summer, in response to the turmoil, Iohannis signed a new law, extending the window for voting abroad to three days, and enabling online registration.

The presidential elections in November registered over 940,000 overseas voters (including mailed ballots) – a record. Finally, Romanians were able to cast their votes in an orderly and dignified way.

“We Want a Country Like the Ones Abroad!” (“Vrem O Țară Ca-N Afară!”)

From environmental disasters like Roşia Montană, or illegal logging, to administrative failures like Colectiv, Romanians see corruption as the culprit. Tightly woven into the country’s health, education and transportation systems, it cuts across political color and individual figures. “I had a cultural shock when I moved to Austria, seeing how civically engaged the youth were,” said Valentin. “I was raised in a non-civic spirit, where people I knew would not vote, having lost hope that anything could change.” In retrospect, this is what the motto “We want a country like the ones abroad!” meant for me.

Social democracy as a political ideology is the foundation of the Viennese model. In stark contrast, Romanian social democracy has become synonymous with state capture. “The left back in Romania is not really left, it is a political anomaly,” said Anca. “Neither right or left, it serves no interest other than those of the people in the party, it propagates fake news and hate speech, it does not support minorities, aligns itself with religious extremism. And only makes an effort around election time.”

Alex, a Romanian businessman “imported to Vienna by a German company,” thinks of social democracy in Romania as “the godparents of Eastern European corruption.” He sees social democracy in Vienna as “getting the basics right (employment, housing, health, education), plus supporting the business environment – with a soft spot for research, development and small startup companies. Rules within a community, respect for each other’s rights and life choices,” he misses in Romania. The freedom to develop “unconstrained by labels” is also why Valentin decided for Vienna.

Home is Where Inima Ta is!

They say home is where your heart is, but what if your heartis split? “My heart, my soul is at home, but my brain is in Vienna!” said architect Valentina. She moved to Vienna in 2014 in search of professional opportunities. She wants Romania “to develop and blossom.” She has been civically active back home and has continued mobilizing from abroad. She sees progress, but slowly, particularly in small towns.

“By now, after 30 years, I consider myself a citizen of the world,” added Melania. “My roots nevertheless are in Romania, and my heart keeps beating for this great love, which has left me heartbroken time and again. But to be an idealist does not mean to be naive.”

Over time, Romanians in Vienna seem increasingly at ease with their choice: “My heart is comfortably split in two countries,” said Anca. “I used to ask myself: ‘Who am I?’” No longer. “I have a loving family and friends back in Romania, and I have amazing friends – like a second family – in Austria.” Based on her experience here, she hopes to start her own NGO back home, dedicated to women who flee domestic and sexual abuse. “Wish me luck!”

For Romanians, both at home and abroad, the past decade has been filled with tense political events that eventually led to a “reawakening” of civil society. They share a renewed hope that the old, corrupt system, which pushed many to leave in the first place, can make room for a united generation, living by European values.

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