Romanian civil society abroad – perspectives from Berlin
Article written by Alexandra Ioan & Monica Boța Moisin for the study #rezist – Romania’s 2017 anti-corruption protests: causes, development and implications edited by Ana Adi (Quadriga University of Applied Sciences) and Darren G. Lilleker (University of Bournemouth)
Romania’s #Rezist is not an overnight result but the tip of an iceberg. In the past 5 years the Romanian civil society has been constantly undergoing development: engagement, active citizenship, critical thinking, action. We can identify various engines of change and various manifestations of it, including the involvement of the Romanian diaspora in these civic movements.
Protests in Berlin – an overview starting in 2012
The protests of the Romanian diaspora in Berlin in January-February 2017 were not the first of their kind. Ever since 2012, the major civic movements in Romania have been supported by similar efforts abroad, including in Germany. The reasons behind the protests were always aligned with the issues raised in Romania: the healthcare reform proposal in 2012, the Roșia Montană gold mining project in 2013, the voting conditions for Romanians living abroad for the presidential elections in 2014, or the tragedy in the Colectiv club in 2015.
The manifestations in Berlin were, just as in the case of the ones in Romania, spontaneous outbursts of dissatisfaction with the way in which the Romanian government operates. While they all had at their core specific demands, the red thread of all manifestations was a general drive towards better governance and an awakening of civic engagement.
With regards to the demands of the Romanians abroad protesting, these were just as varied as the government actions that triggered them. In 2012 the purpose of the demonstrations was to prevent changes in healthcare legislation regarding privatization of services. In 2013, the protests aimed to block mining work using cyanide in Roșia Montană. In 2014, the protesters demanded a better organization of the second round of the presidential election abroad. In 2015 the protests following the Colectiv club fire were a loud alarm signal against the way in which deeply embedded corruption leads to loss of lives. Lastly, in 2017, the protesters wanted to block abrupt and significant changes in the Penal Code that would absolve high-level officials from corruption charges or sentences, thus massively affecting accountability.
Logistically, the protests in Berlin always took place either in front of the Romanian Embassy or in front of the Brandenburg Gate, two of the most important symbols for the Romanian diaspora in the German capital, sometimes including a march between these two places. Besides the creative banners and flags that people displayed, protesters also produced information flyers in German and English about the issue raised and their demands or they wrote and sang songs about these issues. The main idea behind all these actions was to make their message as appealing as possible to other people as well and thus to raise awareness, gain support and increase the pressure on the Romanian government.
In all of these cases, protests in Berlin followed the manifestations organized in Romania. They were a way of showing support for the protesters back home and at the same time a way of showing continued interest in public matters concerning the future development of Romania. The demonstrations in Berlin were also used as an opportunity to inform the foreign public and draw attention to the issues in Romania, and their relation to German and EU matters. The protests abroad also put media and political pressures on the Romanian government which repeatedly had to take into account the demands of protesters and concede.
The profiles of protesters and group dynamics
In terms of individuals, in 2017 the group of protesters in Berlin was very diverse. Whilst all social categories were represented, the vast majority of participants were students, higher education graduates, professionals and entrepreneurs.
Interestingly enough, it was not only Romanian citizens that were part of the core group of protesters, but also Germans, Moldavians and other foreign citizens who either had a strong emotional connection to Romania or who wanted to show their support as the Romanian events evoked similarities with their own countries. All these individuals were connected emotionally through feelings of frustration, anger, hopelessness, combined with pure fear and concern for the future of the country, especially in the unfortunate climate of international politics (Trump’s presidency in the U.S., Erdogan’s unipersonal leadership in Turkey, etc.).
Smaller groups also started forming through the connection of people who knew each other from the previous protests, with new-comers to Berlin. One could even say that it was an interesting “civic therapy” as in most cases the new-comers were driven by emotion, disappointment with the governance in Romania and an instinctual need to act immediately, whilst the Romanians who have lived abroad longer were driven by rationality, a certain degree of scepticism and a need for concreteness in action.
The transition from emotional reaction to expression of concrete demands was fast. By their second meeting in January 2017, the demands of the protesting group in Berlin became more homogenous, aligning requests with those presented in Piața Victoriei in Bucharest or in Timișoara. People had done their research, were better informed and the floor was open for debate.
More than ever before social media played an essential role both in disseminating information, in organizing and in connecting Romanian protesters worldwide. This was also the case in Berlin where protesters used primarily Facebook to discuss logistics and activities for the protests. #Rezist became a mantra, an element of identification, of membership to a group and a reminder that even when the wave of enthusiasm has worn off, the mission of active citizens has not yet been completed.
The profile of the Romanian protester therefore has thus somewhat changed in the past two decades. People are no longer defined by a common desire to simply overturn a system. Le coup d`ètat est mort! Romanians understood that overturning is pointless unless a better replacement exists. The motivation and actions of engaged Romanians stem rather from a desire to build a fair and functional system, to create a new social and political order.
Building upon existing energies
The 2017 protests in Berlin built upon the previous experience and involvement of Romanians living there and followed the same recipe: consecutive gatherings, alignment with the requests of the thousands protesting in Romania, a call for action.
As with previous occasions, gathering publicly to express outrage in the face of certain governmental measures is a way of feeling that one is not completely disconnected from the events at home. It is also a way of compensating for the limited possibilities of engagement in Romanian public affairs accessible from abroad, while also providing a sense of belonging, of community, of home away from home.
Although most of the concrete demands of the 2017 protests (as well as of previous ones) were responded to, this does not eliminate a general sense of dissatisfaction and concern among protesters. The main reason for this is an awareness of the fact that deep, sustainable change in Romania has still not been achieved and also, that protests solely are not the way to actually achieve this. The feeling of satisfaction and relief that very acute crisis situations have been overcome is always mixed with a sense of powerlessness in the face of the deeply rooted issues Romania is facing – be it corruption, poverty, inequality, etc.
This realization however also leads to a desire for civic engagement on a constant basis, even if not physically in the country. Whether getting involved with organizations addressing specific issues in Romania or starting new initiatives themselves, locally or internationally, Romanians in Berlin who took part in one way or another in these civic manifestations continue in their engagement.
For instance, the first agreed call to action for the Berlin 2017 protests took the form of a video conveying the idea that protests in Berlin and in Romania are one voice: “Berlinul e cu voi!” (“Berlin is with you”) chanted the protesters. In retrospect, this video had a dual function: it was a statement of support and solidarity, a group expression of our belonging and civic engagement and at the same time it was a coagulating factor for the Romanian community in Berlin. Individuals from different backgrounds and with no previous connection to each other joined forces in creating a product of the Romanian diaspora. This successful exercise planted a seed: “if we could do this together, we can do more!”.
This seed resulted in Diaspora Civică Berlin (the Civic Diaspora Berlin or DCB) – an informal community initiated in February 2017 as a result of the protests – which aims to contribute to the civic and political involvement of the Romanian diaspora in Berlin in current affairs in Romania. Structured on two fundamental pillars, active citizenship and community building, the actions and events organized and promoted by DCB are meant to educate, generate responsible actions and nurture a feeling of mutual support and the pursuit of common well-being among Romanians abroad and not only. The open sui generis organizational structure and the focus on transparency, inclusiveness and team effort as key values are at the basis of the internal organization of DCB. The community now meets on a regular monthly basis and develops various projects, workshops, discussions with and for civically active Romanians in Berlin.
While the energy of the protests echoed in other capital cities like Vienna, Brussels, Paris or London, this overview refers strictly to the protests in Berlin – their background, dynamics and constructive consequences. A particularity for Berlin is that an outcome of the recent protests was the formation of an organized civic informal group committed to raise the civic and political involvement of Romanians in diaspora. It is possible that Berlin is not a singular case.
The way forward
The 2017 protests were a renewed signal of the awakening of a civic conscience among Romanians that translates into the process of forming a strong and active civil society. 27 years after the fall of communism, Romanians start approaching their government, their representatives and their politicians from the position of a demanding citizen that wants to be taken care of rather than taken advantage of by the public system. Although this mind-set change is still work in progress, and it will take significant time to become institutionalized, it should serve as a signal for politicians and public officials that it is no longer business as usual.
The level of scrutiny, critical thinking, transparency and accountability demands coming from Romanians, has definitely changed. Policy-makers and decision-makers should definitely take this into account in their next political moves. Furthermore, the involvement of the diaspora in these developments is a clear statement that leaving the country does not mean a complete disruption from national internal affairs, nor a lack of interest. The energy mobilizing Romanians in the country and abroad is the same and it is the foundation of an active and mature civil society.
This article was also included in a report and published here.
Alexandra Ioan is a Doctoral Student in the PhD in Governance program at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Her professional and academic interests include civil society organizations, social entrepreneurship, policy-making and inter-sectoral collaborations that address complex social challenges. Due to her extensive international professional experience in civil society organizations and her policy and governance academic focus, Alexandra contributes to the development of effective civil society organizations and policy-making processes. She has worked with the CODECS Foundation for Leadership, the New Horizons Foundation, the Hertie Foundation and Ashoka. She holds degrees from the Hertie School of Governance, the University of Bucharest and the National School of Public Administration and Political Studies in Bucharest, Romania. She was a Visiting Student Researcher at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Stanford University.
LinkedIn Alexandra Ioan
Monica Boța-Moisin is a cultural intellectual property lawyer based in Berlin. She focuses extensively on creating a framework for the protection of traditional cultural expressions and building bridges between local traditional communities and the fashion industry. She is the promoter of a legislative initiative in Romania for the protection of the Romanian Blouse, Romanian designs and traditional cultural expressions and in late 2015 joined La Blouse Roumaine as a pro-bono legal counsel and coordinator of the advocacy group for the legal protection of traditional designs. Author of various legal articles in both Romanian and foreign publications, Monica has pioneered the terms of ‘cultural intellectual property’ and ‘traditional identity design’ in Romanian academia. Monica has a long history in active citizenship being a member of the European Youth Parliament, acting as a trainer and debate moderator since 2007. Monica graduated both from the Faculty of Law at the University of Bucharest, Romania and from Collège Juridique Franco-Roumain, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2013 and is a member of the Bucharest Bar Association as a fully qualified lawyer. In 2015 she completed a master’s degree at the University of Bucharest with a focus on international arbitration and in the summer of 2012 graduated from the Fordham Law Summer Institute, Fordham University, New York. Currently in Berlin, Monica started a collaboration on textile management in fashion with a local brand.
Linkedin: Monica Boța Moisin Website: monicabotamoisin.ro
Photo: Protesters marching in February 2017 to the Brandenburg Gate. ©Dan Perșa