How Romanian People Power Took On Mining and Corruption – by Shaazka Beyerle and Tina Olteanu (November 17, 2016)

One doesn’t usually think of the southeast corner of Europe as a hotbed of citizen dissent and mobilization. Yet people power in the region has been on the rise in recent years, producing some impressive outcomes. This has been most notable in Romania, where grassroots action has challenged corrupt political-economic interests, undone a toxic gold mining project, and put teeth back into the country’s democracy.

This was clearly evident about a year ago, on October 30, 2015, when thousands of Romanians took to the streets of their capital to protest a horrific fire in a Bucharest nightclub that took 64 lives. The organizers of a rock concert had set off fireworks inside, causing a catastrophic blaze.

The club’s owners were arrested and charged with building code violations. Some of the hospitalized victims contracted life-threatening bacterial infections after a Romanian pharmaceutical company supplied over 350 hospitals with heavily diluted antiseptics at inflated prices.

The protesters coined a term for the tragedy: corupția ucide, or “corruption kills.” As it turned out, the slogan was an effective one — the crowds swelled to 25,000 people. Victor Ponta, the country’s prime minister, resigned soon afterwards.

There’s a good reason the protesters’ anti-corruption message worked. Corruption in Romania is everywhere — it is part and parcel of how the government and economy are run. Institutions are weak. Reformers within the government face intimidation as well as bureaucratic, political, and financial obstacles. And when corruption is challenged, it’s often no more than a cynical ploy to discredit someone’s political opponents. So it’s not surprising that most Romanians are suspicious of the social and economic elite: They feel that the state, the political parties, the corporations, and the media all work only for their own benefit.

These sentiments breed apathy. All too often, graft is considered simply the cost of doing business and stimulates no civic mobilization. Dozens of politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities either have pending cases before the courts or are facing prosecution by the National Anti-Corruption Directorate. As a result, venal politicians are repeatedly voted back into office. As one running joke would have it, an entire government could be formed in prison.

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