Romania’s February protests: austerity strikes back

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The February protests in Romania reflect the way societal divisions erupted not long after the parliament elections in December last year. So why the largest protests in years? People’s concerns were legitimate but this was not a free move simply against pardons for corruption despite being advertised as one by mainstream media’s culture wars rhetoric. Its size was “fueled by the contempt of the young liberal middle class for the poor, by their antipathy for the state and for any politics which didn’t look as if it was fighting corruption. How did Romania come to this? It was somewhat anticipated since the year before the President invested an unelected government run by technocrats who symbolically incarnated the anti-corruption fight. Let alone that technocrats were not really up to their reputation, anti-corruption had previously become a type of public sermon after being heavily subsidised by both politicians/institutions unwilling to tackle inequality, and various lobbies with large enough investments to fear increases in taxation or wages. Despite being sold and ingested as a miracle extract, NAD’s anti-graft campaign had a limited role reducing poverty or government mismanagement as it was supposed to. Anti-corruption became slowly synonymous with slashing the state, on short, synonymous with austerity. The campaign’s dubious methods or efficiency were never under serious scrutiny, but its fervor was inevitably discrediting all government spending programs (widespread tax resistance is dragging back public health and education), while it also relaunched talks around austerity packages disguised as “structural reform”. By doing this it diverted popular attention from empirical evidence showing insufficient tax collection and wages lagging behind. In addition, purportedly independent institutions like the National Bank, the Constitutional Court, the High Court of Cassation and Justice and all media outlets, including a few who support the government, go along the same logic as crypto-liberal cheerleaders of the minimal state and deregulation. Less state means less demand for tax conformity and escape from the public eye. This is only one of the reasons why they constantly warn us about public spending and have instilled the notion that the state is inefficient and corrupt by its very nature. It then turns out that plans to increase the minimum wage can only mean corrupting people, and being against it can only mean correcting the state’s perpetual deviations.

Even after the elections beating liberal spin doctors hoped to form a government to their liking, and president Johannis attempted to push for an alliance against social democrats. After the issue of ordinance 13th, they could demand a government resignation or at least for a reversal of the government’s’ spending plans. For right-wing pundits the anti-corruption fight is exclusively responsible for prosperity while more affirmative agendas are simply treated as “privileges” and “bribes” for “buying” votes. Redistributive agendas are a threat to their intellectual and socioeconomic status, more so pardons in exchange for “privileges” for the poor. This is why they are incapable to appreciate the most recent GDP growth data and will deny it with fervor. People of the emerging left platform Demos, or anyone who is concerned with wellbeing should be extremely cautious with replicating even small parts of this message as they did in February. True, pardons have excited the most but so did scaremongering tactics about increasing the income of the poorest Romanians. Earlier in January when some people learned about the proposed increments of the budget sector spending and of the minimum wages, liberals immediately labeled it as “selling out” our future. A January decision to remove the threshold for health insurance tax for very-high wages created a storm of pessimistic news about Romania’s economic stability, joined by the ludicrous laments of the suddenly “impoverished” top earners. Paradoxically, mass media framed this into a pressing public concern despite the elections result which confirmed that most Romanians don’t believe in meritocratic fairy tales justifying the huge income disparities and regressive taxation. The same tactic was used to criticise the annual minimum wage increase, which was always followed by myriad tales about rising unemployment, inflation and bankruptcy.

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People had and still have reasons to be angry. The healthcare system is deficient to say the least. In 2014 Romania had the largest share of avoidable deaths in EU, 50% of all people who could be cured were lost. But the share of avoidable deaths is lower than in 2011, while funding did not improve and the doctor’s wages hadn’t gone up yet. The protests didn’t happen because things had gone worse, but because Hexipharma and Colectiv scandals exposed a underfunded state, emaciated by years of austerity. When hospital beds and clinics were cut off under the liberal government nobody heard a noise, it was done mostly in small town areas and it didn’t really upset the young middle class. Colectiv had shown a year before that they are just as exposed as the others. Now the whole problem was that instead of blaming austerity they grabbed whatever was more familiar and focused entirely on corruption. It was difficult to agree on the protesters’ social profile or their total numbers, but if we were honest about the protests’ geography things should be less confusing. Simply put, the bulk of protesters were urban dwellers less affected by poverty. Let’s not forget about Romania’s unequal development and the huge disparities between people living in Bucharest or Cluj and  those in other areas, not to mention in rural areas. People in Bucharest are hardly representative of Romania. And someone’s sister or poor uncle who joined the protests are not the working poor. The working class may pull 12 or 16 h/day and has fewer opportunities and liberty to advertise it. They don’t get free coverage like a medic, or anthropologist turned into professional heroes by mass media. Don’t get fooled by the elderly who displayed banners saying they don’t need increased pensions. Self-inflicted austerity and time discounts are good news only for the millionaires and bankers who were present in the street. We should actually be more critical if not completely suspicious of crowds of uber-responsible people rejecting salary and pension increases and refuse their moral superiority calls. It should suffice to ask ourselves once again about income disparities in Romania to curb this moral enthusiasm. Don’t get fooled by their calls for justice. Justice simply doesn’t entail the absolute good versus evil dimension that they seek. Instead their idea of justice synced better with the technocrats’ promise to abandon partisan politics and to ignore the poor which are indolent and should “work for 2 Ron” (or 40 cents) if needed.

 

As elsewhere, perception management and not empirical data set the tone and the themes of the public debate. Fighting corruption became a panacea even for social problems, including income and wellbeing, mentioned earlier. Romania has the lowest unemployment numbers in decades after a five consecutive year increase of the minimum wage. This has placed Romania ahead of all its neighbors except Hungary and the country is doing surprisingly well in terms of pure numbers. Its’ GDP is exceptional for a country surrounded by Europe’s poorest countries considering the importance of global trade. Is corruption answerable for low wages? Is social spending too big? The answer is no, on the contrary, empirical data is showing the opposite. The wages have not kept up with growth. So why the whole mediatic hysteria?  It partially has to do with the distrust in statistics and data driven evidence and partially with inequality. The profit share as percentage of the GDP is the second highest in EU while social protection spending is the lowest in EU, only the Baltics fare even worse than Romania at this. A report from 2015 shows that over 70% of the employees are struggling with lower than average wages when the average was around 400 $, lower than in Macedonia. In 2016 19 % of all full time workers could be labeled working poor, figures that are slightly worse than one year before. Poverty levels increased surprisingly in 2016 after a 4 year decrease. Romanians’ efforts to work do not pay off, while there were shy improvement or even regression in tax collection as in 2016, despite unprecedented measures to pamper the companies for voluntary tax compliance and despite the economic growth. Anti-corruption is not enough if not completely irrelevant in its current understanding for the country’s living standards.

 

At the February protests one could hear frequently that Romania is on the brink of collapse and people will leave the country even though wages went up and the economy performed best in the area. Well, people are leaving their countries to live and work elsewhere from those in Sweden to those in Portugal while they get a larger share of the pie compared to workers in Romania who are behind them all. Demos, soon to be a party, joined the protesters despite not having a clear message other than down with Social Democratic Party (the big winner in the Parliamentary elections), cultivating the already ‘traditional’ manichean approach to party politics in Romania. Instead of pointing the right way to inequality or at least finding another spot, Demos risked smearing the few progressive measures that the government has taken, a tactic that is at least unusual given the predominant street voice. Social democrats in power may not be on the left, but they increased wages while solid EU left-wing parties decided otherwise. Demos, who is entirely capable of issuing a quick report that is more truthful to what happened in February delayed it and got close to zero coverage in the international press. Mainstream media was busy reciting either orientalist poems about corruption-driven poverty or market success stories. What got out were articles that show unrestricted support for anti-corruption, for Kovesi and the NAD, or those worried about markets suffering from too much anti-corruption.

 

In all this turmoil social media has taken center stage with viral posts spattering on the government and its voters. People shared slogans and the opposition invested heavily in facebook campaigns. In online advertising, employees were given free time to create and spread this kind of politically enriched content. Ironically, this turned out to be seen as spontaneous rage. A special webpage for those lacking inspiration and ready-made cardboards with slogans downtown Bucharest were also seen as signs of benign mutual help. In fact it looked better organized than old times communist May parades and we all remember how spontaneous those things used to be. Some protesters portrayed themselves as younger, more educated and generally superior from voters of the social democrats, sometimes even defining identity in blatantly racist terms. Self-congratulatory messages and decency superlatives didn’t stop protesters from displaying violent contempt towards poor or rural residents or from bashing the so called social benefits “seekers”. It might turn out that it was a bad move for the new Romanian left to join the retrograde and punitive agenda, and to stand too close to the social suppression and “structural reform” adepts. Investing more in anti-corruption is a dead end and it will not compensate for Romania’s purported lack of appeal for its own citizens and for the much-sought foreign investors. Many hope that the new left should bring forward credible discussions and plans for helping syndicates, for collective bargaining, progressive taxation of wealth, inheritance and income. The income disparities might make one think that there is enough room to share with the rest. Let’s not get sidetracked by the huge investments in the ideas of corruption and austerity and let’s seriously talk about justice. Justice should not be as personalized around one character or another as the mainstream media would like it to be, and the opposition should stop suggesting that courts can rule against economic measures. It was not different this time around. If one looked more attentively at Romania part of what happened during and after the protests was the renaissance of austerity, the only credible game in town.

 

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