Romania: Two Elephants in the Room

Source: Democracy International NGO.

Cultural worker, researcher and activist Nebojša Milikić (Belgrade) sat down with Romanian political scientist and International Relations scholar Ovidiu Gherasim-Proca to discuss the ideological confusion and deflected promise of anti-corruption politics in an era of faltering neoliberalism. Against President Klaus Iohannis’s contention that Social Democratic Party corruption was “the elephant in the room,” Milikić and Gherasim-Proca assess the prospects for popular welfare at a time when elite liberal interests can most easily mobilize masses against politicians’ criminal behavior while deflecting their attention from the much greater systemic corruption of the neoliberal state.

Q: Can you elaborate on your thesis posted on Facebook: that there are two elephants in the room of capitalist injustice: corruption and anti-corruption.

 On the 18th of January, before the protests, the President of Romania unexpectedly showed up at the government meeting about which there had been rumors in the previous evening, suggesting that the government was intending to pass two urgency ordinances secretly: one regarding the pardon of certain criminal offences, the other regarding the revision of some Penal Code articles. Klaus Iohannis used then the metaphor of the elephant in the room, suggesting that the Social Democratic Party’s  (PSD) intent to pass the two normative acts was embarrassing, the two documents being both invisible and obvious for everyone. It seemed to me that the metaphor of the two elephants is very suitable to describe the frustrating way in which, amid the heat of the very intense partisan conflict, the entire debate avoids any direct, sincere and therapeutic facing of the general feeling of injustice that mobilized huge manifestations of protest in Romania since the winter of 2012.

The age of austerity has left deep wounds here. Increasing inequalities, wage cuts in the public sector and increasing social polarization were all accompanied by great political crises. The alteration of laws without any debate, under the pretext of an urgent need for reform, but systematically aiming to diminish the employees’ rights and to eliminate the protection against various forms of exploitation, was accompanied by the development of a real cult for criminal justice. The political front of the big parties has been divided, often artificially, along the most profitable populist lines, without changing the general tendency to abandon the state’s responsibility towards its citizens. The center-right parties emphasized the populist discourse of the “fight against corruption”, unconditionally supporting the National Anti-Corruption Directorate’s (DNA) actions, which has gradually amassed an exceptional power, intervening in key moments of the political conflict with investigations and communication campaigns. From the disciplinary institutions’ perspective, the source of all evils in society is corruption. Corruption should be suppressed by all means necessary. However, the initial moral high ground of the “fight against corruption” was gradually blurred after public complaints regarding some controversial judicial actions, the regulations that offer special power to anti-corruption prosecutors, the Constitutional Court’s accusations and the judges’ protests regarding the extralegal collaboration between the Prosecutor’s Office and the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). On the other hand, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the party most affected by DNA’s interventions, sought to gain political support through an ambiguous policy of fiscal relaxation and a gradual increase of social benefits, all being accompanied by an attempt to draw the support of the Orthodox Church – which is a very popular organization, religion becoming the most accessible form of psychotherapy during the financial crisis. Nevertheless, they did almost nothing in order to rectify the Labor Code, to decrease the major social inequalities, to afford more safeties to the workers or to sustain coherent social policies.

The daily sense of injustice grew despite the intense competition between the main political parties on a market of surrogates for criminal and social justice. This happens because there is a common drive that describes every major political option: the subordination of the public interest to the private interests, inequality, corruption, the preferential treatment of capital in relation to labor, the expropriation of the commons. There are two elephants in the room of capitalist injustice: corruption and anti-corruption policies. Both the injustice engendered by illegitimate or illegal relations between investors and the state and those generated by the turbulent, arbitrary and superficial nature of the “fight against corruption” are manifestations of the same unequal economic system, hostile when it comes to public service. Corruption is ubiquitous, but the anti-corruption measures do not change a thing. They leave an impression of insufficiency and selectiveness. The equality before the law that is claimed by the supporters of the anti-corruption policies, referring to criminal justice, does not reduce the inequalities within the society. These facts are noticeable and they generate indignation. But nobody seems to have the courage to bring this issue into the official discussions, possibly at a government session, and place them in their relevant context: the injustice of a social system based on the privileges afforded by the possession of capital.

Q: In this Guardian article ( a short analysis indicates that anti-corruption struggle waged by the secret services, (backed and supported by international political community, mostly EU bodies) endangers democracy itself. Without entering the question of what is seen as “democracy” in such analysis can you explain the contradiction between the clear majority of PSD in recent elections and the massiveness of the actual street protests?

The clear electoral victory of the PSD was due to many factors. They proposed a program based on economic issues, clearly oriented against the budgetary discipline constantly reminded by the technocratic government (which was mostly consisting of EU officials, private sector managers and NGO leaders). The National Liberal Party (PNL) and the newly formed civic party Save Romania Union (USR) focused their entire program on corruption allegations against the Social Democratic Party and on the unconditional support to the Prime Minister in office, Dacian Cioloș. The latter was describing himself both as an apolitical technocrat and as a supporter of both of these parties. The lack of clear programmatic proposals and the feeling that the elections were nothing more than a plebiscite for the status quo have demobilized parts of the middle-class electorate that usually takes part in the large protests. The same effect was probably created by the emergence of serious doubts regarding the anti-corruption idealism (for instance, the cover up by the technocratic government of a plagiarism scandal that had substantially affected the credibility of DNA’s chief prosecutor). Within the social groups that are mobilized by liberal civic devotion and anticommunist discourse it began to emerge a reluctance regarding the traditional marginalization of the lower-class voters, the PSD often being described, in the electoral context, as a party supported by uneducated, poor people from the rural areas, people afflicted by vices, incapable to inform themselves and to vote. Despite a steadier orientation towards the middle-class interests and the urban, young electorate, the PSD is unable to meet the expectations of this category in a convincing way, being rather an old-school parti de masse passing through a very long identity crisis (hierarchical, inflexible, paternalist and not well-adjusted to on-line political communication).

Q: What happened after the elections?

The post-electoral period began with a lot of noise, with the unexpected refusal of the President to appoint Sevil Shhaideh as prime-minister (she would have become both the first woman and the first Muslim to serve as PM in post-socialist Romania). Then, the President’s decision to preside over a government session for the first time during his mandate was seen as an astonishing political victory after the serious defeat of his party (PNL). Ever since the appointment of the Grindeanu government, The National Liberal Party had insisted that PSD needed to disclose its position regarding these issues, constantly accusing the government party’s intent to pardon politicians that had been condemned for corruption or to issue an amnesty for corruption offenses. After the protests began, the President did not hesitate to descend among the protesters and express his indignation. The mobilization track record of USR’s activists (now part of the opposition) was also a contributing factor. Thus, the alignments that are detrimental for the PSD were revived and the effect of personalized power was created, the salvationist and emotional context which had lacked during the campaign for the legislative elections, but which guaranteed Klaus Iohannis’ unexpected victory in 2014. The patronizing attitude of the Justice Minister, who insisted impassively to go on with the public consultations and the adoption of the normative acts despite the protests, the atmosphere of suspicions and the obscure debates, have infuriated even some of the PSD’s voters.

Q: It all sounds like very clear reason for the protest but also as too much confused reasoning about its political and ideological background and goals. Did you notice some protest pattern of that type during your research for your course “Borders, Barriers and protest culture – the new politics of social movements in Central and Eastern Europe”?

Generally, large protests tend to focus on a range of dissatisfactions which cannot be clearly articulated. Nevertheless, their interpretation and the engendered effects depend on the analysis of the context, of the partisan stakes, symbols, ideological assumptions, discourse and (social) media communication trends. This is precisely why these aspects interest me more than the mechanics of mobilization; my particular interest is to observe the protest culture, the representations of the protests and the social transformations that accompany them. Something very interesting is happening in Romania in this recent sequence of large protest movements. Since the anti-austerity protests (2011-2012) and those against the controversial mining projects (2013) there was a gradual shift to increasingly unclear ideological motivations, generally inclining towards the right-wing partisan discourse. For example, in 2013, the presence of nationalist groups was more easily recognizable. Since then the Romanian flags, the nationalist and anticommunist paraphernalia have become customary for the large manifestations. The protests have also become easier to be capitalized in the partisan race, directly or indirectly, by the big political parties, which are structurally oligarchic and opportunistic in character. For instance, the Social Democratic Party’s victory in 2016 can also be interpreted as a reaction against the way in which President Iohannis capitalized the 2015 protests, which enabled him to appoint a right-wing government without securing a substantial legitimacy within the society. Simultaneously, the anti-corruption discourse has started to include increasingly authoritarian elements, in a context in which civic movements are becoming more and more ideologically unaware, which is not a promising development at all. Conspiracy theories and hate speech are replacing the civic deliberation more often than not, while the social issues are constantly oversimplified as punitive representations or by stigmatizing the socially disadvantaged groups.

In fact, I think that this year’s protests are very similar with the ones that took place in 2015. The latter emerged as a huge emotional reaction after an accident. A Bucharest night club caught fire and the consequences were tragic because of the lack of fire and emergency evacuation measures. A large number of people took to the streets spontaneously as a sign of mourning, but the mourning turned into an anti-corruption protest. The social democrat Prime-Minister resigned, and the President appointed a new PM. The prevailing slogan then was “Corruption kills” and a great number of conspiracy theories emerged, regarding the way in which the public emergency services allegedly blocked the access for the private ambulances which could have saved the victims. Certainly, corruption can be invoked in order to explain everything, because it’s ubiquitous, but the structural fundamental issue is the reduction of the administrative apparatus and the neoliberal reforms that imposed increasingly softer rules in order to facilitate business. Only the independent left, a small minority, tried to bring into discussion this larger issue which constantly puts the lives of many at risk. Without much success. The safety rules and the more drastic checks initially enforced by the resigning government were criticized, and the new technocratic government extended the deadlines for obtaining the necessary permits through an emergency ordinance.

This time, the main topics were the collective pardon and the revision of the Penal Code. Some of the proposed measures would act for the benefit of the members of the coalition in power, but they would have rectified some articles in the Penal Code, which had been previously criticized by the Constitutional Court and which, because of their conceptual stretching, give to the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) a great deal of power, for instance the possibility to initiate a criminal investigation around the issuing of national laws and governmental decrees. The entire debate revolved around the unconditional support lent to the prosecutors and around the government’s decision to modify those legal arrangements. The political parties advanced their positions strategically. The President demanded a referendum regarding the continuation of the fight against corruption (for which the only possible answer is yes, of course), suggesting that the Social Democratic Party seeks to put an end to it, while the leader of the PSD invoked a concurrent referendum regarding an amendment to the constitutional definition of family (which would have brought him substantial popular support, but at the same time would have brought the homophobic religious authoritarianism on the agenda, next to the anti-corruption punitive authoritarianism). The structural issues regarding the overcrowded prisons and the penal law’s basic humanism, which prompted prisoners’ protests last year, were overshadowed, as was also the case with the debate around the anti-corruption prosecutors’ ability to shape the legislative agenda through ad hoc criminal investigations. Or the fact that a great number of Penal Code articles were declared partially unconstitutional. The prosecutors set in motion a criminal investigation of the emergency ordinance, even though they do not have the constitutional right to have a say in matters such as the necessity or the legal content of the legislative act. The spirit of the protest was dominated by punitive anger, while the moderate calls were blurred.

Q: Let’s assume that the messages related to the mentioned “punitive anger” have been reduced, simplified and focused for a good reason. The protestors show a variety of messages, some of which include sophisticated accusations of and imputations on the regime: for being the heritage of “communism”, corrupted by default, popular and in power thanking to the support by less literate and educated people etc. Could we think about the underlying socio-economic structure of the dominant employed “symbols, ideological assumptions, discourse and (social) media communication trends”?

The strongest impression is that the various dissatisfactions within the society can be captured more and more easily by the dominant political actors, through a process of authoritarian deliberation in which the political groups amplify their power and their ability to fight against each other, while the legitimate interests, weakly represented, have even fewer ways of expression. Both sides pretend to represent “the nation”, but none of them represent the society. As far as that goes, thinking about the possibility that the protests could bring real democracy now… this is discouraging to say the least.

Regarding the discursive means used by the two largest confronting sides, the strongest impression is that they are both framed in the same post-truth paradigm, often invoked in order to construe Donald Trump’s victory. Emotions are decisive. Also the energy of the partisan messages conveyed online, the consolidation of the beliefs within the community, but outside any relation with the factual reality, which gradually becomes irrelevant. Generating an inverted “anti-system” discourse in which the media symbols of capitalist success compete for popularity, post-truth is the most efficient way to obscure the class-domination background. Nevertheless, it enables us to observe the class character of the production of symbols and images. And from this point on we can go further towards larger questions, so rarely asked in this day and age.

For some people, it’s hard to understand how it is possible for individuals with middle-class education to be so confident about their position even when they spread sophisticated conspiracy theories that upset concrete evidence or progressive interpretations, creating precisely the confusion they are presuming in the case of the disadvantaged groups of the society. I think the answer points precisely to the central role played by middle-class actors when it comes to the production of dominant points of view. These conspiracy theories are produced in the same middle-class information-making creative circles. Concretely, all parliamentary parties (but also the Constitutional Court and the National Anti-Corruption Directorate or the various press institutions) represent, first and foremost, the interests and lifestyles of the privileged groups, and the political conflict is about who exactly will have the task of representing them by using the state power. Actually, the entire symbolism reflects the tensions within the petty bourgeois imaginary.

For example, when one side invokes a conspiracy theory to point out the funding of the opposing NGOs, reiterating themes of petty-bourgeois anti-monopolism and “anti-colonialism” from the interwar period, they add the fact that the local petty bourgeoisie is under the threat of the big international corporations. Thus, they also translate the conflict between the small and the great owners of capital for the voters that belong to socially disadvantaged groups (pensioners, underpaid employees and other “losers” of the post-communist transition). They are doing this by using the emotional language of nationalism. They also signal the abuses of the anti-corruption institutions against local entrepreneurs, who get punished, while the big corporations involved in corruption affairs would not get the same treatment. In going this, in fact, they are demanding more impartial relations within the mechanism of the unregulated market – where, let’s not forget, the state constantly interferes mostly in the interests of capital owners. On the other side, right-wing populists and civic activists who claim a liberal respectability legitimize themselves through the middle-class urban culture itself, pointing out the fact that they are the sole driving force of social change, that an entire country depends on them, that they are the only ones who can save it, and that they represent the “true values” of the nation. The nationalist discourse is also present in this instance, especially via the expats’ interventions, who maintain strong affective and political links with their home country.

Q: When it is about linguistic and propaganda levels, it seems that there is (not mere a stylistic) conflict that somehow resembles the underlying class composition of the current and previous conflicts. The PSD uses harsh and even brutal language of power, accusing the protesters of being supported by foreign interests and agencies. The protesters have more or less obvious support by private business and financial sectors, but they in fact also talk through the mouth of the president and of more than a few top EU officials and instances.

Belated anticommunism (deprived of its object) has the function of a discursive apparatus that wipes gradually the memory of the egalitarian stages of social and economic development navigated by the past generations during the socialist past. To some extent, an intergenerational divide is involved here, but not only along demographic lines. It’s rather a gap in the social memory. The PSD is still electorally linked with the social categories that still possess this memory, people generally stigmatized as uncivilized or incapable to choose. This is the reason why they are bizarrely identified as a communist party by their rivals, even though PSD is nothing more than a center-left oligarchic party like many others, probably situated closer to the right than many similar parties in Europe. In addition, sometimes the tone is very inappropriate. This year protesters frequently shouted “PSD, the red plague”, a slogan to closely resembling those of the far-right.

Q: It seems that the described ideological confusion somehow fits all sides in the parliamentary politics. But it also seems that we tend to forget that political confusion is often conceptualized produced and nurtured. It also needs some reliable tools of its generation and distribution. Could we recognize or even deconstruct the origins of this type of confusion, which gradually prevails in many countries of the today’s – supposedly rational and democratic – capitalist world? Or maybe its specific origins in the East-European domain?

Understanding an existing situation always depends on the concrete political and social circumstances. But the ideological confusion seems to be a global trend that produces the clearest actual political results. The new digital economy of attention and behavior is only a vehicle for larger historical trends that could offer an explanation for the crisis of the liberal democracies and for the illiberal turn globally. We also need to acknowledge the ingredients of the new transformations brought about with the large protest movements of 2011. Donald Trump’s victory (Donald Trump is a self-proclaimed anti-corruption warrior himself) points out the success of the Tea Party-type movements in the United States and the failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The “Arab Spring” ended with no major positive consequences. The same thing can be said about Euromaidan, which actually reinforced the authoritarian political attitudes both in the Ukraine and in Russia. In the Republic of Moldova, the 2016 protest that brought accusations against oligarchic corruption and a massive banking fraud have materialized into an electoral debate that lacked credibility and which led to the victory of a candidate who holds hostile views towards the European Union. The failures of the European Union referendums and the generalization of the anti-immigrationist discourse overlap on the successive electoral victories on the European People’s Party and on the tendencies of the authoritarian government parties from Hungary and Poland. Last year’s large manifestations in France did not increase the chances for the emergence of a political turn that could match the expectations. In addition, the far-right movements are gaining ground and are able to mobilize manifestations such as the one that took place in Dresden in 2015, where nearly 18 000 people participated. Last year, Austria hardly managed to avoid the election of a president who shares radical right-wing ideas. Syriza did not succeed in determining the change of economic philosophy that many hoped to see after the large protests in Greece. The nationalist-technocratic trends are strongly discernible in India (Modi) and in Japan (Abe). Against the same background of redeeming simulacra, the politics of fear and suspicion established itself durably in Israel (Netanyahu) and the Philippines (Duerte). New borders and barriers are erected everywhere, while the social gaps are not disappearing, but on the contrary, they are deepening. Every time the state of exception becomes the basis of legal decisions and legitimacy, which not only proves the profound crisis of the liberal democracies, but also the complete inability of the bourgeois public sphere (Habermas) to regenerate itself or to accomplish its deliberative mission.

Just like the unregulated markets that do not self-regulate and do not regenerate themselves after great financial shocks, we can notice that the self-regulation and self-regeneration powers of the public sphere are more and more illusory. The mobilization to protest does not change the shallowness of the decision monopoly of the great political actors, both in the domestic politics and internationally. The same thing seems to happen in Romania, where the anti-corruption prosecutors are accused of political partisanship, the social gaps are widening and the confronting sides bring in their support either the act of voting or the online mobilization. Last year’s political situation in Brazil just came to my mind, Romania’s case being in many respects similar.

Q: There are more and more similar situations around, seems almost like a global trend, where the fractions of urban middle classes and petty bourgeois (so far seeing themselves as either realistic or illusionary “beneficiaries of the global transition”), insist on the values and purity of the system? But to the local and global “losers of transition” the protest appears also as a sort of reclaiming the share of spoils?

 Protesting within the limits of your own self-contradictory system of values can release some of the tensions between hopes and results. On the other hand, the ideological confusion is one of the major causes of the relative irrelevance of the liberal civic mobilization.

From a historical perspective, taking the Eastern European experience into account, the global neoliberal consensus and the political left’s identity crisis during the last 30 years look like a temporal bridge between two moments of utmost utilization of the ideological weapons of the Cold War – with the difference that now one of the two rivals, the Soviet Communism, is missing. Another important distinction would be that the simulacra are increasingly easier to produce in the age of “virtual reality”. The imaginary of social progress is reduced to a neoliberal utopia in which the immediate reality resembles more and more an imperfect dystopia evolving indefinitely.

After 1989, an extensive process of active forgetting started, denying the realities of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. In the absence of an elucidation of our relation with this past, systematically presented one-sidedly, in a simplistic and self-deprecating manner, there can be no answer for the current challenges. Anything can be superficially linked with the hazy past, but nothing can be attached to the future. There cannot be any big political debate, or at least a conceivable future that everybody could hope for by virtue of the principle of political equality – the foundation for any democratic society.

These days, one very influential Romanian journalist, Cristian Tudor Popescu, wrote that the 2017 protests mirror the 1989 ones (under the title „The second fall of Ceausescu”, Of course, the approach is ridiculously hyperbolic and misdirected. However, it says something about the incapacity I mentioned before. Few days ago, another influential investigation journalist wrote about the „fact” that in the proximity of the place where the protesters gathered, at the National Geology Museum, he discovered radioactivity levels 100 times higher than those recorded at Cernobîl… ( The article was pointing to concrete policy problems regarding regulations of dangerous materials. Of course, no one could believe the enormous exaggeration. The author erroneously interpreted the official reports. Apologies followed. But what about the article about the second fall of Ceaușescu? Do we have the lucidity to see the big picture? Can we think in realistic terms about the enormous challenges of the present time, without fantasizing spectacularly about a past we are not even capable to explain accurately anymore?

Nebojša Milikić is a cultural worker, researcher and activist, lives and works in Belgrade, Serbia. He is involved in organizational, artistic and curatorial practice in visual and relational arts; also he is active in research projects and public campaigns. Milikić writes about cultural and artistic production and works at Cultural Center Rex in Belgrade, as the initiator and coordinator of debate programs and the program of democratization and decentralization of culture.

Ovidiu Gherasim-Proca is a Lecturer at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iași, Romania  (Department of Political Science, International Relations and European Studies).