This interview was given on the 17th of January 2012 to Foreign Policy Romania. The questions are by FP and the answers are by Kai Brand-Jacobsen. The interview addressed the demonstrations taking place at that time across Romania. Many of the questions and answers are relevant for events in Romania today.
1. We have a lot of ambivalence now: onthe streets, in the newsroom and on the corridors of power. The main reason forthat is we didn’t have such social movements until now. Their anatomy isextremely peculiar for the majority of Romanians. You know that last yearprotests were kinda dull, a lot of elderly people, everything looked quitestaged. The social media was silent, people were minding their own business.And that’s the way everything unfolded in the past two decades. What do youthink has changed? Do you see some real political rage out there? Do the actionseem genuine in your eyes?
I think the actions we’re seeing now in Romania – people going into thestreet, organizing demonstrations, mobilization through social media and muchmore – are indeed genuine. They’re a reflection of the very real concern andunease people feel about the social, economic and political direction of thecountry, and a sense of frustration which has been building up for a long time.I think “what has changed” is that the recent actions and statements bypolitical leadership in Romania has simply reached a point of “enough isenough”. Some of the comments I’ve seen from senior political leaders – quotedin both Romanian and international media – have shown such an extreme disgust,disrespect and disregard towards the average Romanian citizen and voter. Thepolitical system in this country – across all parties – seems to have verylittle regard for the population, for the actual citizens of Romania. This hasbeen reflected in the policies of the last 20 years, and especially in theausterity packages of the last few years. Civil servants, teachers, workers,pensioners, doctors and nurses are all having their incomes and earnings cut,while an extremely small minority of the population continues to use, consume,and abuse vast sums of wealth which should be better spent meeting the actualneeds of the country. I’ve been deeply impressed with Romania over the past 10+years, and I’ve met many wonderful people in Romania – including in government,in state institutions and across all sectors of the population (businesses,artists, academics, workers, pensioners, etc). This is a country withexceptional capability and potential. One thing which many visitors wouldsuggest has been missing – and many people in Romania feel the same as well:vibrant, honest, informed discussion about the social, economic and politicalpolicies being promoted in the country, what they mean for the country, and howthey’ll affect people. Many of the policies pursued in the past years have beenharmful for the population and for economic development of Romania. Theconsistent lack or absence of respectful engagement, honest dialogue, andservice of the political class to thepopulation has bread both deep apathy and cynicism. Romania is not only a‘cynical’ country though. It’s a very dynamic, creative, artistic country, acountry with a rich history, and with many very wonderful people. What’shappening now, is that slowly, people are discovering their power, their voice,their dignity, and calling out for something better – for themselves, for thecountry, for all Romanians.
2. President of Erste Bank said sometime ago in a press conference that the austerity measures the Boc Governmenttook would be impossible to implement in Western Europe? What’s the reason forthat, and beyond the social context is the West in for a rough landing becausethey will not accept a negative correction of their living standards? Is therea way out of this dilemma? Is the Government fundamentally right but hasproblems explaining it or there are just incompetent (or to corrupt) to findother ways to deal with the problems we are facing?
I would completely agree. The policies implemented in Romania over thepast years – and I would extend that further to suggest over the past decades –would not be possible in many countries in the West, as well as elsewhere. Partof the reason is that in many parts of the world people, citizens, are moreactive in demanding accountable government, and in knowing they power – andresponsibility – they have as citizens. I think many people in Romania feelpowerless, and there’s a general practice in the country of ‘speaking down’about others. I know many people in Romania, however, who want to change this,and are changing this. Who instead of just insulting, critiquing or speakingbadly about the country and each other, are trying to bring forward anddiscover what’s beautiful in it, to make people ask themselves what kind ofcommunity, what kind of country they want to live in, and to realize thatthey’re the ones who have to mobilize, organize, discuss, engage, and act if they want that to happen.
I wouldn’t agree that ‘Western Europe’ will be in for a rough landingbecause of not having accepted the extremes that that Romanian state and IMFhave forced upon the Romanian people. The measures being adopted in WesternEurope are themselves extreme enough. What they are not doing – in WesternEurope or Romania – is responsibly dealing with the actual causes of theproblem, or promoting policies that can contribute to creating dynamic economicgrowth and wellbeing for the population. The economic crash of the last yearshas been caused, in large part, by a casino economy gone out of control. Bubbleinvestment in speculative markets, adding up to trillions and trillions ofdollars, have crashed. The actual real productive capacity of the economy,however, has not changed. The actual needs of populations have not radicallychanged. The response, however, has been one of the largest transfers of wealthin modern history, from the overwhelming majority of the population to a tiny,tiny minority who are reaping ever greater profits. Why is it we’re havingrecord numbers of billionaires during a financial crisis? Why are civilservants, teachers, doctors, etc. having their salaries cut when they weren’tthe ones who caused the problem? The problem is also not an issue of capitalliquidity. We have enough capital. The problem is that capital is being hoardedby private interests and for the wealth of the few, rather than invested insound, productive economic activity. As Nobel Prize winning economists JosephStieglitz and Amartya Sen have both pointed out, this is an unsustainableeconomic model and needs to be changed.
For decades now, Romanian academics, intellectuals and media havelargely failed to critically, responsibly and intelligently analyze policiesadopted in Romania – policies that should be questioned, and that people shouldbe informed about. The impacts, however, have been devastating. What ishappening now is that Romanians – the overwhelming majority of whom have beenuncomfortable with what is happening for some time – are beginning to becomeactive. They are uniting in this with similar movements all over the world –movements calling for a return of intelligence and rationality to how we manageour economic systems; movements calling for accountability on the part ofgovernments and corporations who, hand in hand, have forced through thederegulation which lead to the very financial collapse of the last years;movements calling for protection of and return to democracy, dignity, andresponsibility. In this, on the streetsof Romania, the people of Romania are taking a step forward joining with thosein Western Europe and around the world. They’re taking a step forward fordemocracy and accountability in their country.
3. What do you think that such amovement can achieve? There are a lot of power groups that would like tochannel the authentic rage of the people, some of them legitimate, some of themnot. Is this movement meant to be just a short outburst of frustration, will itlead to early elections or to a reset of the whole establishment (somethingradical as the de-legitimation of the whole party system)? We know for a factthat Romanian democratic institutions have very low trust levels – under 10percent)? Is there a “revolution” required if the whole establishment lacks theallegiance of the people?
What I would suggest should be one of the most important aims of themovements is to reclaim the public space in Romania. To help people breakthrough and realize that this is their country,their future, and they have not onlythe right but the responsibility not just to comment, but to be active inshaping what happens in their country. Another central aim for the movementshould be to promote democratic dialogue– to inform, to educate, and to raise people’s awareness about what’shappening, about their rights, about the implications of laws and policies forthem. Romania – and many countries in the world – needs to actively build thecivil and political space of real democracy: of people’s power, and of apolitical and economic system that is accountable to them. I hope the movementwill be much, much more than just a ‘burst’ of authentic rage. I hope it willencourage journalists to cover the news with greater courage, integrity andhonesty, and to play the role they should play for the country. I hope it willencourage academics to re-dedicate themselves, to teach their studentscritical, intelligent and constructive thinking, to turn universities intoactive spaces for democratic dialogue and civic engagement. I hope it willencourage civil society organizations, artists, designers, writers, poets,intellectuals and others to use their gifts and capabilities to mobilize,inspire, and encourage people in the country to actively debate and discusswhat’s happening. I hope it will encourage all of us to demand and give greaterrespect in how we treat each other. And I hope, and would encourage themovement, to identify very clear demands that deal with and address people’sreal needs and issues – what’s really affecting people in their lives inRomania today. But the movement to really ‘democratise’ Romania isn’t amovement of days or weeks. As in Egypt and also in ’89, leaders may come andgo. What’s needed is to bring about a social, cultural, political and economictransformation in Romania. To rediscover people’s dignity, and solidarity. Whatis happening now on the streets of Romania and in the hearts and minds ofRomanians across the country is a powerful – and inspiring – step in thisdirection.
4. Yesterday in Bucharest we had twokinds of protests. One in the Unirii area, where it was a lot of rioting,burning, fighting, and another one at the Universitate, where people werepeaceful. Two questions: first, is there a risk that the violent rioters coulddelegitimize the whole movement, who would lose sympathy and momentum? Andsecond, what should state institutions do to prevent such behavior in theupcoming days?
I’ve been deeply impressed the last days by how the movements haveclearly called for an absence of violence – both by demonstrators and by stateinstitutions and security forces. I think the government and state institutions– and leadership within the Jandarmarie and police – need to be very, very clear in calling fortheir forces to restrain from all acts of violence. The police and Jandarmarieshould be actively assisting citizens to exercise their democratic rights andto create a safe space for them to do so. The movement also will continue togrow, and to ensure it creates a democratic process which all citizens can takepart in, will work actively to prevent any outbreaks of violence. The focusneeds to be on the actual issues: the social, economic and political policiesnegatively affecting the country, and the rudeness and insulting of people’sdignity. If it is successful in doing this, it will continue to grow andinspire people across the country. In addition to the demonstrations thoughthere are many other actions which are important – actions by artists, bywriters, by poets, by journalists providing honest coverage, in discussiongroups, workshops, training programmes to support civic engagement anddemocratic actions. What’s happening now is exciting and inspiring.Hopefully…it’s just a beginning.