For over a month tens of thousands of people took the streets in the major cities of Romania. They protested against the project of an opencast mine in Roșia Montana, a small mining town located in the Apuseni Mountains. In the making for almost 15 years, the project is mired in controversy. Not only that the development of the project points to a complicity between state officials and the corporation but, perhaps more importantly, the scale of the ecological impact is beyond grasp. Some 12,000 tones of cyanide will be used to extract the gold, silver and rare metals hidden in the four mountains of the region, which will leave behind some 13 million tones of mining waste per year. To put it bluntly, the exploitation will in fact involve the transformation of the region into a huge lake of cyanide, making it one of the biggest such project in the world. What is worse, according to the contract between the state and the company, which still remains largely secret, the ecological cost in the region of 500 million euros per annum, will be forked to the state budget. From an economic point of view, the project is far from beneficial to state coffers: with 6% shares in the profit and 20% participation in the project, in the long run the costs of the project seem to outgrow the benefits.
What sparked the protests at the beginning of September was the announcement made by the government led by the Social Democrat Prime Minister Victor Ponta that it drafted a special law that will clear the way for the exploitation. With over 70% majority in the Parliament, comprising Ponta’s Social-Democrats and Crin Antonescu’s National Liberals, the vote would have been a formality. The draft of the law is in itself a remarkable piece of political brinkmanship since it had to break a series of other laws and state regulations in order to grant the exploitation project the green light.
This blatant display of political favoritism towards a shady corporation naturally elicited accusations of corruption and determined people to take the streets against the project. Opposition to the planned exploitation is not new, however. The hard work of a handful of activists managed to both slow down the process and raise awareness towards the devastating impact it might have. For more than ten years, Save Roșia Montana –which included a yearly festival in the small mining town – was one of the most articulated local campaigns, drawing on ecological arguments against the project and mounting a staunch criticism of the political class that enabled such a project.
While this Autumn’s protests were spearheaded by such activists, they quickly grew in scale and complexity and as such it is hard to regard the movement as a single-issue one any longer. In fact, Rosia Montana is an empty signifier that manages to encapsulate a series of overlapping but also contrasting demands. Despite the impressive numbers of participants –making these protests some of the largest in the post-communist era – there is hardly a unified set of political interests, sensibilities and demands among the participants. The protests attract a vast array of social segments and agendas, all identifying in these movements an outlet for their wider concerns: ecologists, nationalists, football supporters, anarchists, feminists, left-wingers and people claiming no political interests and affiliation mix together during the long Sunday evening marches. This is also evident in the diversity of the banners people carry, from those demanding the end of the corruption among politicians, to those militating against capitalism, the IMF and the austerity measures and to those simply claiming national pride.
Two major factors contributed to the growth of the movement and its diversity. First, the specific nature of the Rosia Montana conundrum led to the mobilization of two strong social factions: on the one hand the ecological-minded urban “hipsters” (as the mainstream press fondly calls some segments of the participants with a mixture of sympathy and derision) tuned to the latest technology and in touch with global protests happening elsewhere; on the other hand the nationalist segment for which Rosia Montana is a syndrome of selling out to the foreigners and devastating the local resources. For both factions, the politicians and the foreign big international corporations, and especially their collusion, carry the blame for the plans to destroy Rosia Montana.
This alliance constituted the backbone of Save Rosia Montana campaign for over a decade and represented the initial core of this Autumn protests. But this overlap between ecology and nationalism runs even deeper in the Romanian context, which explains this contemporary alliance. From 19th century, nationhood was linked organically with language, blood and soil. The ecological dimension was therefore firmly ingrained in the Romanian national identity from its inception and was later mobilized and magnified during the national-communism of Nicolae Ceaușescu. This is why, among some participants of nationalist bent, the real problem is not necessarily the exploitation as such, but the fact that it is made by a foreign company, thus stealing the Romanian resources through the mediation of corrupt politicians.
Secondly, precisely this dimension of anti-corruption further magnified the scope of the protests attracting more constituencies, which paid little if any attention to the Rosia Montana affair before this fall. For these protesters, the whole case is a symptom of the failure of the political class as a whole. It therefore needs to be replaced by a new one, less corrupt and endowed with the values promoted by the post-communist civil society. For them, the ecological aspect is secondary to the aim of reforming the political class as a whole. From this perspective the Romanian Autumn is similar to the Bulgarian Summer in that the main demand is for a more European, civilized, democratic country, in which the current politicians are replaced by more direct forms of popular participation through civil society institutions.
But in the Romanian case, there is a further twist, which is highly important, pertaining to the local political games foreshadowing next year’s Presidential elections. Incumbent president Traian Basescu, a staunch opponent of the Prime Minister and of the current coalition that unsuccessfully tried to impeach him last year, was a very vocal supporter of the exploitation in Rosia Montana for the past decade. This was so until the government drafted the aforementioned special law when he changed tack and, buoyed by the mass protests, openly rejected the project and sided with the protesters’ demands. This allowed his supporters, who were until then on the fence or who ostentatiously ridiculed the protests, to full-heartedly join in and thus swell the number of people in the streets. This sudden change of heart is of course populist but also points to a deeply entrenched sentiment among a large majority of the protesters: their distrust and distaste for the Social Democrats in power, still considered the offspring of the former communists, and, by extension, for any sort of leftwing politics in general. Therefore, in the last few days, there is an evident swing from the initial demands against exploitation towards more poignant demands for the resignation of the Prime Minister. Of course, the Prime Minister –presiding one of the most neoliberal governments of the post-communist era – did little to alleviate these criticisms by endorsing the project with mendacity and committing in the process blunders after blunders.
Do we witness then a similar case with that of Turkey, when a movement that started from a fairly localized issue around the destruction of Gezi park sparked into a huge popular uprising against the incumbent Prime Minister and his politics? The Romanian case is far from that and in fact the Romanian Autumn of 2013 is a step backwards from the Romanian Winter of 2012, when even though timidly, the neoliberal consensus of the post-communist transition was questioned and at least partly rejected. By contrast, these current protests seem to restate the expectations of the early years of the transition for a capitalism with a human face, sensible to people’s needs, freed from greedy corporations and corrupt politicians, providing prosperity and democracy for all.
In fact, to put it in more general terms, beyond the immediate demands and pretext, the current protests are a reaction of the local middle classes to the effects of the ongoing capitalist global crisis, expressing a nostalgia for prosperity and social security. Since this is a crisis that entails dramatic changes in relations of production and accumulation, as well as a thorough reconfiguration of work relations, some segments of the middle class feel the downward pressure of the crisis upon their capacity for social reproduction. The movement for Rosia Montana offers then a channel to direct these frustrations and expectations. However, so far the protests did not lead to the articulation of a thoroughly political response. They prevented in fact a wider cross-class alliance, since with the exception of middle class urban segments, the rest of the population is either uninterested or simply irritated by the topic, forced to face its own struggles for making a living amid increasingly impoverished circumstances.
While the directionality and further political articulation of these protests are still unknown and open, they simultaneously signal a reaction to a wider economic transformation. The exploitation of gold at Rosia Montana through cyanide and the planned Chevron exploitation of gas through fracking in the east and south of Romania point to a re-primarization of the country’s economy. Basically, just like in the interwar period, the main source of accumulation seems to be the extraction of prime resources by multinational corporations enabled by a comprador political class whose only aim is to cut a share of the profit and to remain capable of reproducing itself amid popular pressure from below. This will entail the tightening of the political control of the population through military means –already visible in the huge budgets for police and secret services the state allocates each year – and the likely growth of the extreme-right nationalists and populists seeking to capitalize on the popular discontent.
This is why this Romanian Autumn is crucial. Its outcome will shape the future to come, both in Romania and in the region.
Text initially published in Le Monde Dimplomatique Croatia