Tens of thousands of Romanians who live and work across Europe gathered in the center of Bucharest earlier this month to protest against the government and its plans to curtail anti-corruption efforts. They were met with a brutal police crackdown. Pepper spray and water cannon were used. That was the day Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) dropped all pretense of serving the country’s citizens. I’m a Romanian immigrant myself, and I wasn’t at all surprised that our diaspora took to the streets.
Like other eastern Europeans, Romanians are a people of migration. An estimated 3.6 million of us live abroad, compared with 20 million back home. Roughly a quarter of the active population has left. And in recent years, as mechanisms for change seemed to keep failing, Romanians have increasingly turned to street protests to denounce the abuses and graft of successive governments. It was only natural for the diaspora to try to make its voice heard.
As migrants, we have a big ax to grind with the ruling elite back home: they are responsible for our country being in such a sorry state that the only option was and is to leave. And their incompetence and dishonesty are what prevent us from returning – the most powerful dream of many migrants.
Most Romanians I know abroad spontaneously flew home to take part in the protest. They had watched previous protests from afar, glued to their smartphones. Now the diaspora was to have its own event. It was a powerful idea: Romanians scattered across the continent suddenly mobilizing for change.
And the timing was right: the PSD was close to changing the law to make life much easier for corrupt officials. There was also outrage when the head of the national anti-corruption agency was fired last month. This came shortly after Liviu Dragnea, the PSD leader seen as the country’s most powerful politician, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for inciting others to abuse of office – an appeal is still pending – on top of an earlier conviction for election fraud. The scandal surrounding Dragnea and his allies reached fever pitch just as many migrants were returning home for their summer holidays.
What happened on the streets of Bucharest on 10 August shocked everyone. Victory Square became a chaotic battleground. Protesters I’ve interviewed are still reeling from the viciousness of the crackdown, having swallowed pepper spray or been targeted by the military police. Children and elderly people weren’t spared. Many are convinced the violence was unleashed deliberately by the police to make protesters look aggressive. But that has backfired. Prosecutors have now opened an investigation.
Alexandru, a 27-year-old store manager who’d traveled from Cambridge and wanted to remain anonymous, England, describes “people constantly falling to the ground and suffocating” because of tear gas. Tudor Barbarosie, a 40-year-old IT entrepreneur who lives in Kent, Kent, says: “I had my son on my shoulders when I smelled a strange smell, like burning tires. My son cried: ‘Daddy, my eyes are burning!’” He took his family to safety and returned to the protest. “If anything, it made us angrier.” Dana Hering, a 48-year-old nurse living in Sweden, took part with her son: “We wanted to demonstrate peacefully, with our families and friends. Instead, we got gassed and beaten up”.
“I can’t believe the Romanian state hates me so much it wants to use gas against me,” says Laura Ghibu Ventimiglia, a 46-year-old dentist, also living in Sweden. “I was afraid for my life.”
Such violence isn’t without precedent in post-1989 Romania. In 2012 anti-austerity protests were met with police assaults (under a center-right government). And in the 1990s, pro-democracy activists had come under attack during the infamous mineriade – violent interventions against students and opposition groups by coal miners mobilized by forces close to the government. But the fallout from this latest crackdown is now likely to damage the ruling party.
Mass emigration is surely a symbol of state failure – low wages, a lack of opportunities and bad governance. When the diaspora decided to take up the fight for a better life at home, they came under attack. Gabriela Mirescu, a 39-year-old political analyst living in Switzerland, describes how exuberant she felt when she joined other protesters. “It felt like we were gluing together a broken Romania. But then came deafening sounds, shouts, children carried away with handkerchiefs over their faces.”
“I cried the whole night,” says a 41-year-old EU worker based in Brussels, who also wanted to remain anonymous. “Because, on that night, Romania showed itself not to be a democracy,” Andrei Bogdan Sterescu, a 22-year-old studying in France, told me he had stayed away from anti-corruption protests, for fear they might benefit rightwing opposition parties. But the police response on 10 August convinced him this was now “a protest of all the people”.
When so many expats and local people are brutalized just for show, collectively, how fed up they are with the way the country is run, something is clearly amiss. Romania is not only one of Europe’s poorest countries, it is also one of the most corrupt. Authoritarian tendencies are frightening, but they’re also the sign of a party fearful of losing its grip on power after dominating much of Romania’s politics since 1989.
Romanians are tired of a government that disregards the rule of law, threatens the judiciary’s independence and shapes legislation to suit its own interests rather than those of the people. People have come to see corruption as the single biggest problem, but if the current leaders were ousted, our country would still face the same daunting task that has gone untackled since 1989: how to build a state focused on the wellbeing of its citizens; how to encourage people to stay instead of pushing them away; and how to rebuild broken communities. This is what all those on Victory Square crave so much.
Real political alternatives are yet to be established. Fighting corruption is necessary, but it’s not enough. Still, this was the first ever large-scale diaspora protest. If anything, it showed distance doesn’t matter when it comes to fighting for democracy. Every year Romanian migrants send billions of euros back home, helping families survive and making small investments. The thanks they’ve received from the government has been brutal. “I’ve never felt more connected and proud of my people,” says 30-year-old Iris Barbulescu, who also lives in Sweden. “Old people, teenagers, mothers; it didn’t matter. We kept turning to the mounted police and shouting: ‘We will never leave!’”
• Claudia Ciobanu is a Romanian journalist specializing in central and eastern Europe