On the afternoon of February 5 citizens in Bucharest marched simultaneously from several neighbourhoods across the city, converging on Piata Victoriei where the government building is located. The symbolism of this march was splendid: the grassroots coming together from the smallest corners to stand up to a central government perceived as abusive.
For the past fortnight, hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating, first weekly, then daily, across all of Romania against two government proposals that would have seen those guilty of abuse in office pardoned or having their sentence reduced.
Then on the night of February 4, the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) which controls the government had announced tht it would withdraw the executive decree reducing some corruption sentences which had drawn the most public criticism.
While people gathered in Piata Victoriei and elsewhere celebrated this victory, they also knew that the PSD would still try to push ahead with the measures. In the most likely scenario, the proposed legal changes will be put to vote in a parliament dominated by the PSD.
The continuation of protests on February 5 despite the government’s announcement was meant to show the executive that it was being watched carefully. Protests may quiet down over the next days but they will most likely pick up once the laws get close to a parliamentary vote.
The legal jargon around the two PSD legislative proposals was so complicated that even legal experts were struggling to figure out what was going on.
But the nuances of the debate were not lost to protesters. As some in the crowd started asking for the resignation of the government, others immediately pointed out that the government had to stay until it withdrew the executive order and only then resign, otherwise the measures would have legal effect.
This is evidence of the high level of sophistication among protesters, many of whom have participated in several waves of demonstrations in Romania since 2012 and become skillful at calling public institutions to account, communicating and organising.
Building a protest movement
The strength of the protests of the past week cannot be understood without looking back at the past years of social mobilisation in Romania. This did not come out of the blue.
Protest mobilisation coalesced for the first time during anti-austerity protests in 2012 but it became really powerful during 2013 when weekly protests were staged across the country to save the village of Rosia Montana from a cyanide-based gold mining project. It defeated the PSD government then, which emboldened it.
Street protests stopped for a while but returned whenever there was something at stake: fighting deforestation, protecting green spaces in cities or changing electoral laws to make space for smaller parties and independents. New independent media and local activist groups were born.
Mass demonstrations happened again after the Colectiv nightclub fire that killed 64 people in Bucharest in 2015. That tragedy revived investigative journalism that revealed criminal flaws in the functioning of the Romanian medical system.
A few years ago, during one of the protests, an activist held a banner with the words “A quarter of century of solitude”. Referring to the famous novel of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the protester, a historian and activist who had dedicated his adult life to mobilising young people towards civic involvement, was possibly reflecting on how daunting the task was.
Like other post-communist countries, Romanian society was known for its low levels of civic involvement and solidarity. Fear of the Securitate – the secret police – during communism followed by the aggressive individualism of capitalism had left Romania’s social fabric in tatters. Those speaking about collective political action were seen as freaks.
But within little more than five years this has changed. When the PSD unveiled the corruption laws, people knew what they had to do – get together in the streets and protest. It had become a familiar practice.
The failure of post-communist transition
Last week’s protests were the biggest since the fall of communism and participation was diverse, across age groups, economic class and political values.
Moral outrage against a government ready to circumvent democratic process to serve its members’ interests united people. At the same time small gestures of solidarity popped up such as restaurants offering free food and warm tea and hotels offering accommodation to those travelling to Bucharest to protest.
Romania's street protests will not solve the country's problems.
A historical photograph from the bloody 1989 anti-communist revolution has been in circulation recently showing a young man holding a sign saying: “We are here so that our children can be free”. It was echoed last week by young people, the children of the 1989 demonstrators, holding banners saying: “We are still in the streets protesting”.
The post-communist transition failed in many ways in Romania: primarily, because poverty levels are still staggering and the lives of working people still precarious.
The PSD’s attack on democratic practices in order to pardon the corrupt indicated another failure: even the fundamentals of democracy have been under threat.
But while a decade ago, Romanians would complain that they are a passive society not responding to abuse from the rich and powerful, today it is different.
On February 4 in Bucharest, a children’s protest took place in Piata Victoriei, with families bringing their youngsters out on to the streets to teach them the value of civic involvement. The Romanian state is still failing most of its citizens, but something changed. Many are ready to do their it to help.
Authoritarian regimes are rising everywhere in the world, not just in post-socialist Eastern Europe where democracies were always thought to be fragile. Last week, the PSD gave a first sign that it was ready to sacrifice democratic processes for its own interests and justify it with redistributive measures that are desperately needed.
The citizen response this past week has dealt a severe blow to the PSD. The party may have thought that winning elections by 45 percent allowed it to do whatever it wanted for the next four years, but protesters insisted the election result was not a blank cheque.
Romania’s street protests will not solve the country’s problems. Failing public institutions, poverty and inequality, racism among others are very real problems that need to be addressed by wise policies and the political will to carry them through.
If they are not dealt with, parties like the PSD will always try to exploit those failures for political benefit. Romania desperately needs an alternative to the PSD on the left that could tackle these issues effectively.
The demonstrations show that citizen power can check abuses by the powerful. In a world where our tolerance for such abuse seems to be increasing by the day, that’s an extraordinarily hopeful development.
Claudia Ciobanu is a Romanian freelance reporter based in Warsaw. Her articles have appeared in the Guardian and Reuters among others.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.