Shortly after their landslide victory in the December 2016 parliamentary elections, and during one of the decade’s harshest winters, Romania’s new governing coalition decided to roll out a series of legislative ‘hot potatoes’ that challenged the rule of law. The ‘emergency decree’ that would have allowed corrupt politicians to escape or avoid jail was passed at night, in secrecy. Nevertheless, 300,000 people came out onto streets in more than 30 cities across the country.

The government, led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), won the elections by promising higher pensions, higher salaries in the public sector, lower taxes and holiday vouchers. But in attempting to save its own corrupt members from jail (and preventing others from facing trial by redefining the legal concept of abuse of power) they underestimated public reaction, particularly among the young, educated, urban population.

Recent years have already seen a series of protests: against austerity measures in 2012, against the cyanide open-pit mining at Roșia Montană in 2013, against government corruption that led to a fatal nightclub fire in 2015, and against a deputy prime minister whose abuses of power led to the death of a police officer in his motorcade in 2016. The 2017 protests had numbers (the largest since 1989) and seemingly endless supplies of humour and creativity. But what made them stand out is that dissent had become mainstream: the streets were filled with people often mocked for their corporate affiliation, marching alongside students and faculty members, entrepreneurs and various civic groups that otherwise would find themselves worlds apart.

For several days, Romanians seemed to forget to fear their state’s authoritarian practices as they demanded a government that abides by the rule of law.  Generous coverage from the European media proved helpful: for the first time in decades major newspapers ran articles on the people’s demand for an independent judiciary and transparent decision-making. But as the light of live coverage fades and a selfie with a protest banner becomes ‘so yesterday’, many of us are aware that the road ahead is long, and that a better government will only be achieved through protesters’ continued presence in the public sphere.

Ten years after joining the European Union, we in Romania look less to Brussels’ leveraging power and more at our own capacity to generate social change. With an ever-growing interest in accountability, environmental justice and inequality, and in transnational issues such as migration, Romanian society might find itself at the core, rather than at the periphery of Europe.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Sorin Mutu