Recapping The Romanians

Romania’s first-ever EU Presidency term is almost over, now it’s time to take stock. A few notes from me below.

  • While the government wanted to have the spotlight on the policy work its team is doing, its own actions at home made it impossible for anyone to avoid the drama and the politics.

  • The Presidency began with pressure from the PSD-led government on the judiciary, namely its leader Liviu Dragnea’s insistence to pass an amnesty bill for acts of corruption and other crimes - including some of which he himself was found guilty of.

  • For the most part of the past 6 months, Bucharest was at odds with the Commission over its actions to subdue the judiciary, while insisting it was doing nothing of the sort; the government also played the “Brussels is treating us unfairly” card quite heavily, again because of its shadow leader’s own inferiority complex and inability to make friends in Europe.

  • The PSD-ALDE government also continued its crusade against the notion that the country’s institutions should cooperate to combat graft - namely its intelligence services and judiciary.

  • The conflict peaked, arguably, with the European Parliament hearings of Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania’s former Chief Prosecutor, now in the running for the newly established position of European Chief Prosecutor. On a shortlist of 3 candidates, Kovesi was ardently opposed by her country’s own government. Bucharest managed the performance of effectively blocking its own candidate’s nomination in the Council through backroom lobbying, once again because of Liviu Dragnea’s personal agenda (which other PSD leaders, of course, supported - even if now they disavow him).

  • Kovesi, however, gained widespread popularity across Europe and, at home, she became an even greater symbol of Romania’s anti-corruption struggle.

  • Dragnea himself is now in prison over his 3rd corruption sentence (one of the magic numbers, of course). Since then - and since the election defeat suffered by PSD, which we’ll return to - the Viorica Dancila government turned on its heels, becoming one of the most ardently pro-European governments in the region, if we’re to take them at their word. According to Dancila, this government has always been pro-European and there was never any intention to pass executive orders to subdue the judiciary, and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

  • Opposition leader Dacian Ciolos echoed many Romanians’ suspicions when he said that this government should only be taken at face value once it’s resigned.

  • Right before January, the government also issued an executive order (which, incidentally, is the only way PSD knows how to govern these days, after losing absolute majority in Parliament and being shaken in confidence by waves of massive popular protests); the order levied extra taxes on banks and energy companies. This was done, as usual, without a previous impact study, and will have a heavy negative effect on the economy in the medium to long term. The opposition should prepare to have to deal with the fallout of PSD’s excesses and incompetence when it eventually takes power, because PSD will point the finger at them if and when inflation hits and large companies decide to pull out of the country.

  • Speaking of the opposition, two relatively new parties, USR (The Save Romania Union) and PLUS have surged in visibility and popularity over the past couple of years, with a distinct uptick over the course of the EU Presidency. This happened on the back of several trends, including:

    • PSD’s unpopularity (and the unpopularity and lack of charisma of its leader in particular)

    • a still-strong anti-corruption streak in Romania’s electorate

    • a broader pro-EU backlash to Euroscepticism

  • They registered strong numbers in the EP elections - under one banner, that of Alliance 2020, which now has 8 MEPs, the same as PSD (who will gain 1 seat after the post-Brexit readjustment), and only 2 behind the winner, PNL.

  • The opposition also mobilised voters thanks to a referendum on the country’s anti-corruption trajectory which was announced by President Klaus Iohannis and was held on the same day as the EP elections. It motivated people to get out and vote, and the final turnout was just under 50%, the strongest ever so far and among the highest in Europe - even with egregious cases of systemic voter suppression across the diaspora (for which the elections organisers, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, have refused to take any responsibility).

  • On the justice referendum, voters sent a strong message against the current government and their attempts to undermine the rule of law.

  • The opposition should now bear in mind that they will need to work twice as hard to hold on to voters who came out to punish PSD rather than necessarily voting *for* A2020 (or PNL).

  • Alliance 2020 is now an important player in the newly formed / renamed liberal parliamentary group Renew Europe; Dacian Ciolos, one of the alliance’s leaders - a former Agri Commissioner and Prime Minister - might even become the head of Renew, after Macron’s point guard, Nathalie L’Oiseau, dropped out because of a media scandal.

  • Meanwhile, the day after the elections, a Bucharest court issued a final sentence in a Liviu Dragnea case; Dragnea is now in prison for the next 3 and a half years for fictitious hires. Since then, PM Dancila has become emboldened, starting to define a voice of her own after months of working in Dragnea’s shadow. She is trying to reassure European partners that she leads a pro-EU government committed to the common good and the rule of law. The government has also dropped the self-victimisation and populist rhetoric it has been using increasingly since 2017. As mentioned before, PSD’s populist play failed in large part because of how deeply unpopular and uncharismatic Dragnea was - which is always a risk when you personalise power.

  • It’s also worth taking note of the political revival of former PM Victor Ponta. He resigned in 2015 in the wake of the Colectiv fire and massive street protests and has kept a low profile, biding his time for spirits to calm down. His new party, ProRomania, now has 2 MEPs and he’s attempting his own rebranding as a pro-EU political player. His credibility among European partners remains low, however, and he was not invited into Renew, which he had hoped to join.

  • A lot has changed in Romanian politics. The country now has a real liberal opposition with a strong pro-Europe message, and there is a sense of optimism about the future which wasn’t there before. I would trace it back to a catastrophic fire in 2015.

  • The Colectiv disaster galvanised public anger and discontent with how prevalent corruption was both in politics and society. It was a wedge moment for Romania:

    • In the very short term, it sparked massive street protests which pressured the Ponta government to step aside

    • Then, Dacian Ciolos was appointed to lead a technocratic government; many of its members went on to join USR or PLUS, with government experience now to boot

    • It boosted the visibility and popularity of these 2 parties, which had a strong anti-corruption message

    • It forced members of the civil society to take a step forward and do the unthinkable - enter the political arena, often avoided because, as the saying goes, you don’t wrestle with a pig; you get dirty and, besides, the pig enjoys it

  • It was the beginning of the end for PSD’s choke hold on Romania. While the ride has been bumpy and uneven, the country’s democratic and pro-European outlook has never been brighter, and we can trace it all back to a 2015 catastrophe which sent angry shock waves through society and made Romanians fully understand that “Corruption Kills”.

  • In light of all of this, I’d rate Romania’s EU Presidency as a success mainly for highlighting the contrast between the “old politics” and the pro-EU, pro-rule of law aspirations and potential of the new political generation. This contrast was especially striking while the spotlight was shining bright on Romania.

Read More

Keeping up with the Romanians - Ep.7: A draft enters Europe

  • If you’ve met a single Romanian in your life, chances are you’ve learned of their people’s greatest enemy – the draft (curentul). Leave the window or door slightly ajar, and invariably there will be a draft threatening to lock up your lower back, give you headaches or colds, and generally just leave you in a poor predicament, health-wise.

  • The entire Romanian Council presidency has been one major illiberal and authoritarian draft, and Europe needs to pay attention if it cares about its health and future.

  • Whereas most analysts thought the PSD-ALDE coalition would behave with the spotlight on them, they have actually ratcheted up their assault of the justice system and on Romanian democracy itself

  • Terrified of what Kovesi at EU level might do to their criminal enterprises, they’ve lobbied EU governments hard in order to not vote for the Romanian candidate in COREPER. Without this lobby, Kovesi could have won the support of the Council, and would by now already be nominated as the first EPPO chief (after the Parliament affirmed its support for her).

  • They’ve passed one of the inanest executive orders right before the presidency began in order to quickly raise funds for the national budget, after raising salaries and pensions with no means of funding it earlier in their mandate. The infamous OUG 114 added blanket taxes across sectors without any public consultation or dialogue. This will cut investment across sectors.

  • They’ve passed another executive order on the judicial system, notably changing the national procedure for nominating EPPO candidates and instituting a new Section to investigate prosecutors and judges. This section is unaccountable except to PSD/ALDE and is their solution to taking over the justice system again (as it was pre-2004) in order to save high profile figures like Liviu Dragnea (but not just).

    • Notice how the government coalition is ruling by executive order, with no transparency, debate, or accountability.

  • Through the Electoral Committee, a body close to the ruling parties, it blocked the new opposition alliance USR PLUS, one of their main threats in the 3 upcoming elections which will determine whether Romania remains an EU democracy or is dragged back into a geopolitical no-mans-land between Brussels and illiberal forces from the East, be they Russian or Chinese. An appeal decision for USR PLUS is pending.

  • Meanwhile, the EPP is still deliberating what to do about Orban’s Fidesz. For similar abuses and manoeuvres, PSD is receiving a fraction of the attention Hungary and Poland did

  • The S&D is miming distaste for PSD’s actions but is in effect continuing to support them and their dismantling of Romania’s democracy. Timmermans talks a big game about supporting the rule of law, but so far his actions or lack thereof have been louder.

  • While the electoral commission’s decision is not final, PSD’s willingness to threaten the integrity of the European elections is further proof of how far they’re willing to go in order to not lose hold of power after having dropped in the polls from a regular 45-50% to a whopping 25%.

  • Turning a blind eye to PSD’s trampling of Romanian democratic norms and institutions will invariably come back to haunt European leaders. There can be no Europe without free elections and independent justice systems.

ICDS: Corruption Undermines Romania’s Credibility During Its Presidency of the Council of the EU

It’s been a while since we talked Romania’s presidency here, and that’s mostly because of my lack of time, but also because it’s become increasingly difficult to track the many ways in which the Romanian government is undermining its own goals for this chair stewardship.

Most notably, former DNA chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi was recently shortlisted for the position of chief prosecutor of the to-be-established European Public Prosecutor’s Office, a body which will investigate cases of large-scale corruption involving EU funds. This has arguably been one of the triggers for PSD/ALDE’s frantic scramble to take over the judiciary; Liviu Dragnea himself is involved in a high profile case currently with DNA, but which the Section for Investigating Magistrates has been trying to take over. The coalition’s fear is that an EPPO headed by Kovesi would have a vendetta against the people who dismissed her.

No matter who is appointed, the government will still be a target for the EPPO due to the high number of politicians involved in corruption cases. However, Kovesi would also serve as a rallying figure for Romanians who oppose PSD/ALDE and want a society based on the rule of law and firmly anchored in Europe. The effect of the symbolism of having the former DNA chief heading a major EU legal body is hard to underestimate.

But if you’ve been out of the loop and want to catch up, Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security has an excellent analysis out, probably the best English-language piece I’ve seen so far, which I highly recommend you read in full here to get up to speed: source.

Keeping up with the Romanians - Ep. 6: The Government vs Intelligence

  • Last week, former PM and EU Commissioner Dacian Ciolos was accused of shady ‘ties to the former Securitate.’ Historian Marius Oprea claimed in an article that a former intelligence officer, Alexandru Iordache, was behind the official registration of Ciolos’ party, PLUS, and thus this collaboration wholly discredits Ciolos & his party.

  • While Ciolos did not directly deny this, he claims the link is spurios, as Iordache’s son was involved in registering PLUS, and that the former does not have any role within the organisation. Ciolos was criticised for his weak response in a Facebook post which cast doubt in the minds of many, including potential sympathisers.

  • It looks to be yet another dirty, or at least muddy, situation that can be directly traced back to Romania’s failure to properly come to terms with 1989 and, most importantly, to conduct an overhaul of its intelligence services, whose extensive reach is almost the stuff of legends within the public consciousness. Even opponents of PSD concede that the power and opacity of the country’s intelligence services are a noxious mix with direct impact on public life.

  • That these accusations of ties to intelligence services only surface now, as the opposition is revving up for the next couple of years of elections, is not surprising. Romania, as many EU countries are nowadays, is also fertile ground for disinformation, with the lack of trust in government and public administration compounded by citizens’ lack of trust in each other.

  • What’s more, PSD has been talking about a “parallel state” for years now, and the latest attack fits the populist narrative perfectly: ‘we are the only option, the opposition is either bought by foreigners/Soros or in the grasp of illegitimate parallel power structures.’

  • To me, this episode raises concerns over the state of the opposition and its ability to withstand a battle-hardened and savvy PSD in the election period to come. This most recent attack has the potential to hound Ciolos, while his relatively muted response could be seen as an example of how not to communicate, as it raised more questions instead of being a forceful rejection of the narrative PSD is pushing; a good opportunity to stress that the opposition is not funded from abroad or used as a front by occult interests was wasted. At the end of the day, there are thousands of people working to make these 2 new opposition parties (PLUS and USR) work, to imply like the original article mentioned above does, that they're a way for the old Securitate to refresh its image is ludicrous and insulting.

  • The good news is that the government coalition is scared enough of the prospect of Ciolos as a candidate (he’s announced he’s standing in the EP elections which he might use as a stepping stone to a Presidential or internal parliamentary elections) to play this card. As an aside, if you’d like to read more about the source of the attack, try this (in Romanian).

  • Regardless, and at the risk of being accused of once again proposing a negative vote (voting against something rather than for), Romania needs to prepare to vote in May if it wants to push back on the populist narrative promoted by the government coalition. Also if doesn’t want more Viorica Dancilas (a former MEP) in the European Parliament.

IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT!?!?

IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT!?!?

Anyway. Here’s a good (no, great!) example of how to communicate and how to do digital diplomacy: Sweden’s MFA.

50472092_10155970433568314_2488364129857830912_o.jpg

In part to do with the MFA’s central strategy, in part to do with the personal efforts of the former Deputy Head of Mission, Alexandre Peyre, the Swedish Embassy in Romania has pretty much become the gold standard when it comes to digital diplomacy and public engagement by foreign missions.

Here, they take the #10yearchallenge and use it to poke gentle, collegial fun at Romania’s infrastructure struggles. I’d say this is better than repeating the word cohesion every 5 minutes because you’ve just learned what it means and want to show it off.

Fact checking Romania's propaganda video

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at what happened with The Romanians over the last week and why it matters.

In the meantime, the Government has released a promotional country video, ahead of 1 December which will mark 100 years of statehood. You can have a look here (sadly there are no English subtitles available):

It’s definitely a weird video, from the inappropriate telemarketing voiceover to the overflowing pathos. It is riddled with clichés, which is a cardinal sin in itself. Most notably, it perpetuates myths and lies about Romania’s history. I went through the clip multiple times to check the claims it contains so that you don’t have to waste your time and brain cells with it.


0:45

Claim: Romania is home to the last wild wolves in Europe.

Facts: In recent years, wolves have begun making a comeback across Europe, in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Finland etc. At best, the information is outdated. Additionally, the clip uses stock footage of wild wolves from Norway. Which definitely complicates matters. Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:03

Claim: Romania is the country of the immortal Dracula

Facts: Dracula is a fictional character. Read more.

Truth:


1:25

Claim: the first instance of human flight using a heavier-than-air vehicle took place in Romania.

Facts: Traian Vuia was Romanian, designed the first monoplane, and proved a heavier-than-air craft could fly. However, he received his degree from the University of Budapest, and went on to build his aircraft and test it in France. Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:30

Claim: The first jet engine and jet plane were both built in Romania.

Facts: In 1910 the Romanian inventor Henri Coanda filed a patent on a jet propulsion system. It was installed in his Coanda-1910 but there are contradictory contemporary accounts about whether the aircraft actually flew. Coanda himself only described it as the ‘world’s first jet’ in the 1950s, 4 decades after its creation.

FLIGHT - 14 October 1960 - link

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:35

Claim: The first woman engineer was in Romania.

Facts: Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu was indeed a pioneer, one of the first women engineers in history. However, she received her degree from the Royal Academy of Technology in Berlin, after being denied admission into the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest because she was a woman. One could argue she became a pioneer in spite of Romania, not unlike the two gentlemen above.

Read more about her here and here.

Truth: ⭐⭐


1:37

Claim: The world’s first oil refinery was built in Romania.

Facts: Romania was the first country in the world to have had its own production officially registered. It also was one of the first countries in the world to open a large oil refinery (as opposed to earlier ‘refineries’ which were simple workshops for manual processing of petroleum - i.e. nothing more than distillation). Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


1:40

Claim: The first European city to be electrically illuminated was in Romania.

Facts: Timisoara was one of the first European cities to be fitted with public electric lights. However, at the time, in 1884, Timisoara was firmly part of Austria-Hungary. Moreover, both Nürnberg and Berlin were fitted with electric public lighting in 1882. Read more.

Truth: ⭐


1:48

Claim: The fountain pen is a Romanian invention.

Facts: While reservoir pens date back to the 10th century, it was Petrache Poenaru who patented the fountain pen on May 25th, 1827. He invented it while he was studying in Paris (which is not in Romania). Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


1:50

Claim: Insulin is a Romanian discovery

Facts: Nicolae Paulescu was professor of Physiology in Bucharest and was quite close to the discovery of insulin but researchers in Toronto were faster and more efficient. Frederick Banting and John Macleod won the Nobel prize, which Banting shared with Charles Best and Macleod with J. Collip. Paulescu’s contribution in insulin discovery was recognized after his death. Read more.

Truth: ⭐⭐⭐


1:56

Claim: The cholera vaccine is a Romanian invention.

Facts: Sir Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, Russian-Jewish émigré to Switzerland and then France, is widely recognised as the first microbiologist to develop an anti-cholera vaccine, tested successfully in India between 1893 and 1903. Read more.

Truth: ⭐


2:46

Claim: The Romanian Parliament is the largest building in Europe and 2nd in the world.

Facts: It helps when you know exactly what “largest” means. Obviously, it’s not the tallest building in Europe or 2nd tallest in the world. It also doesn’t crack the global top 10 if we’re talking volume/usable space or footprint on the ground or floor area.

The most it can claim for itself (despite having no alibi whatsoever for being so u.g.l.y.) is that it’s the largest parliament building in the world.

Truth: it’s definitely monstrously big ⭐⭐


These myths, many of them cemented in people’s consciousness over decades of nationalist-communist propaganda, are perpetuated by the government in the year of the Centenary, almost 30 years since the fall of communism. Why is this - beyond the immediate answer of ‘because it’s politically expedient’?

For starters, PSD lives and breathes nationalism and populism. It is the direct descendent of the Romanian Communist Party; this is how nationalist and populist parties like to talk, down to the telemarketing-style affectation and being loose with the facts. If by July 2019 this blog manages to persuade anyone to stop looking at PSD as a Social Democratic party and instead categorise it as a populist/nationalist party, I will be happy.

Then, I believe a good deal of it is pure incompetence. Someone drafted a list of factoids and ‘accomplishments’ they had memorised since primary school and regurgitated them uncritically into a script without a narrative line, probably deciding it’s not worth verifying that everything is correct. I’d go as far as to say this reflects the level of expertise and knowledge of the majority of people promoted through party structures into public administration, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

Lastly, this video is a microcosm of Romania’s inferiority complexes. Why does everything need to be superlative? Why is everything Romanian exceptional and the absolute best? The video also perpetuates the myth that Romania, this “isle of Latin-dom in the Balkans,” is the direct descendant of Rome and Dacia, as if in the 1700 year-interlude since, Romanians didn’t mix with migrating peoples and other neighbouring cultures. Being called a ‘Balkan country’ is still taken as an insult by many Romanians, as the modern identity was built in opposition to the Slavic nations of the region.

We are witnessing a resurrection of protochronism for the digital age: history is abused to serve the narrative of the ruling party, presenting an idealised version of history based on questionable data and dodgy interpretations. It is presented in an easily-shareable and visually appealing format that artificially inflates feelings of patriotism and belonging.

Has the government hit the right note? It may be too early to say. This bar is encouraging, though:

Happy 100th birthday, Romania!