Romanian protests: Mother trusts the government

For almost a month now, huge crowds of Romanians have taken the streets by storm to rage against two emergency decrees decriminalizing abuse of office that were passed on the 31st of January 2017. One of the two measures changed the penal code decriminalizing abuse of power and conflict interest in the cases in which the financial damages amount to less than 200,000 lei (~45,000 EUR) and the other one granted prison pardons. Together, the two emergency decrees lay the groundwork for the liberation of dozens of politicians convicted of corruption.

photo credit: Octav Dragan

Sure, describing crowds or anything else as “huge” is a relative and politically charged term nowadays, but here is some perspective courtesy of Facebook’s timeline of concerned citizens: accounting for differences in population size, if the peaceful anti-government protests currently taking place in Romania at sub-zero temperatures were to happen in the US it would mean about 2.5 million people marching on DC every night and over 6 million marching across the country, every night.

Backed by politicians and media outlets across the globe, these manifestations have finally paid off — on February 1st, the Romanian Parliament rejected the decrees. We can now all go back to drinking beer in bars after work rather than out on the streets to shout at a building. However, amid the astounding victory of Romanian society over corruption, some of the wounds from this battle cannot be merely licked away. The people who have found their voice in the fight against a corrupt government have provoked a counter-reaction from another previously silent contingent with their own political views — their parents.

The Romanians protesting against the emergency decrees are, by and large, 20 to 40 years of age. For context, that means that during the 1989 revolution the oldest among the protesters were merely teenagers who cannot be bothered to tie their shoelaces. By contrast, their parents were fully functional pawns in a communist regime. It is this older generation who wanted freedom then. That was a hard battle to fight. So hard, in fact, that in contrast every other battle is a trifle to them. However, for the foetuses of the Revolution, looking at other countries’ battles through the Internet lens asking for a blind Lady Justice is no trifle, but a necessary foundation for political accountability.

photo credit: Octav Dragan

Taking a step back from this obvious explanation of the generation gap in the political culture in Romania, the demonstrations of early 2017 have shown that this young, hormonal democracy has spit a new kind of gas on this fire. During the post-communist period, the media market expanded massively. Yet just as the new democratic structures, hit by the blank canvas paralysis, couldn’t shake off all the communist figures, business moguls with strong political ties to the old regime funded the new media. This caused television to turn into a source of alternative facts and biased news. In a country where TV is by far the most popular source of information, this is bound to be a source of tension.

Currently the most watched TV channels in Romania are Antena 3 and Romania TV, some Balkan versions of Fox News, whose coverage of the protests is embellished by conspiracy theories. Some nights, they claim that George Soros, the American-Hungarian magnate is paying each adult, child and dog with a fixed fee to go out into the streets every night. Other nights, it’s either Russia, the Romanian Secret Service or the Americans who are the master puppeteers. Most Romanians over 50 watch one of these two TV channels exclusively from dawn until midnight, while the younger generations use various Internet sources for news. Needless to say, we live in a world where we end up reading things that agree with us rather than contrasting views but, there is a difference between the bias you get from examining one source as opposed to ten.

A smaller counter-protest of people supporting the government emerged a few days after the first one, a protest that belonged to our parents’ generations. They complained that they are poor and ill and that we shouldn’t judge the government on one mistake alone. They are willing to ignore the fact that their representatives hold fake university diplomas and that they face accusations of electoral fraud in the hope that they will get their medication subsidies and pension raises. The people in this group appear on TV to say they are ashamed of their children for protesting against the government. These are the people who fought for freedom and now they are sick of it.

Suffice it to say that the family tensions caused by the recent social unrest go beyond the usual Christmas drunken dinner. There is currently an inability to get past the all-consuming political turmoil to resume traditional family quarrels such as the unflattering outfits, drinking habits and procreation plans of the offspring.

Why is it that politics is thicker than blood? Maybe it’s the fact that alternative facts come hand-in-hand with blame-placing, insults and rage. Rather than reporting that people are protesting because they are unhappy with the government’s actions, an alternative news source would say that they are paid by maleficent masterminds who want to take over Romania and that in fact there are not that many people on the streets anyway, they were just photoshopped by said masterminds to instill fear in the audience’s hearts. A valuable piece of information has no need to be emotionally charged. It is aimed at reason for digestion and interpretation. Yet an unverifiable alternative fact can only be believable if it plays with your emotions. No wonder we can no longer debate politics without our family ties getting all tangled up; TV fires us all up.

But why do people choose to believe what the TV says about their children rather than their own children? Our parents lived most of their lives in communism, where for a long period of time their basic needs were satisfied, their jobs were a given and a safe future was a guarantee. Their freedom was limited but information on what alternatives might be available was not easily accessible, so they weren’t too bothered by it. Growing up in Romania in the 90s, I often heard my parents and their parents remembering fondly how during Ceausescu’s years, they used to be able to afford to go to the restaurant every night and buy an apartment with their salaries. They didn’t question their representatives and their (lack of) qualifications. It wasn’t their job to choose their representatives. Just like in the Truman Show, most of them were never suspicious enough to discover they were trapped in a beautiful cage. But the Jim Carreys did and they told the others, and they started a revolution.

photo credit: Octav Dragan

Enter democracy with its freedom and the promise of slick Armani suits and cold Coca-Cola bottles, seeding the hope for a better life in people’s hearts and empowering them to take their own destinies in their hands. However, with great freedom comes great responsibility and let’s face it: responsibility is unpleasant. Throughout the 27 years of democracy since the fall of communism, ideology was never a reliable compass to pick Romanian leaders. A lie detector test would have been more reliable, but we didn’t have that. The quality of life improved for the young, nimble and able who either left the country or started a business right away, while many others were left dependent on a state that was just being reborn from its own ashes and could not provide good healthcare and decent pensions.

In the context of unfamiliar freedom, poverty and desperation, a socialist government that promises the moon and the stars becomes very appealing. You want to believe it because it’s your only hope. You feel anger and frustration for your circumstances and the local news channel knows that. They work to redirect that anger towards George Soros for paying people to protest, towards Germany for not paying its war dues and towards America for being America. It works like a charm because it means that it’s not Romanians’ fault that their country isn’t doing great.

In the end, we all want the same things. We all want to trust the government and let it do its job. However, while the young generation looks outward for democratic models to emulate, the older generation looks inward and compares the limitations of our communist past with the liberties we enjoy today. What we have now is better than what we had, but it’s worse than what we could have, yet it seems we’re equipped to grasp only half the picture on our own. Perhaps younger Romanians are the Jim Carreys of this Truman Show, but this leading part comes at a painful cost.

Nevertheless, this is not a Greek tragedy, so let’s spare ourselves the dramatics. Nowadays, we, the people whose lives unfold more often online than offline are more and more connected to like-minded individuals. We relish living in a mutual appreciation society, which makes it harder to empathize with contrasting views. It just feels like what we believe is the truth. But an opinion is never the truth, and we should be able to discuss it with our parents or anyone on an even tone, taking turns in talking. And perhaps we will lose some battles and end up shouting at each other with blood in our eyes and veins popping out, but, if at the end of the day they fix you dinner and you take out the garbage, your micro-government at home is working. Tomorrow is another day to fight over politics.

photo credit: Octav Dragan