The Poetry of International Resistance: Radu Vancu on the Romanian Protests

On day 6 of the Romanian protests, over 600,000 protesters use their phones to form a constellation of peaceful resistance.
On day 6 of the Romanian protests, over 600,000 protesters use their phones to form a constellation of peaceful resistance.

“At night, like thieves!” On January 31st, in the middle of the night, the Romanian government passed emergency ordinance OUG 13, which essentially decriminalized corruption. This tipping point has caused Romania’s largest protest movement since the fall of communism in 1989, and it’s quite possibly the largest and most sustained peaceful protest in the country’s history. On Saturday, February 12th, I sat down with Radu Vancu—a renowned Romanian poet, essayist, translator, and professor who has been active in the protests since day 1—at a restaurant near Piața Victorie (Victory Square), Bucharest, where the largest protests against the government take place. In the Trump era, in this international time of resistance, I especially wanted to discuss whether this Romanian model of sustained protesting could be applicable to countries around the world whose democracies are currently at stake. The short answer: absolutely.

How did the Romanian protests begin?

Radu Vancu: They began on the last days of January, when rumors spread that the Grindeanu cabinet would try to pass an emergency ordinance regarding pardon and amnesty in benefit of the corrupted heads of government and of the Parliament, which were, in this way, exempt from all their illegal actions. And thus, the leader of the Social Democrat Party, Liviu Dragnea, could have been nominated as prime minister. He couldn’t be prime minister precisely because he was condemned to prison with a suspended sentence; and by this pardon law, he could have been nominated without any legal hindrances. When we heard that rumor, we got out into the squares in our major cities and started protesting against this future emergency ordinance. The government denied; they said they had no intention of passing such a law. And, even though they promised not to pass this law, on January 31st the Grindeanu cabinet, during the night and without any prior announcement, passed this emergency ordinance. It was such a shock that, in practically half an hour, tens of thousands of Romanians got in the streets and started protesting against this outrageous law. Then the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands cosigned an open letter expressing their hope that the Romanian government would reverse its decision. This letter gave us, the protesters, the certainty that we were seeing things in the right perspective. This is how it started. As a rebellion against an emergency ordinance which decriminalized theft, abuse of power.

What were the protesters’ demands at that time?

RV: The demands before the ordinance was passed—actually there was only one: not to have that ordinance passed. After it was passed, the demands became more numerous, as expected. First of all, we asked for the ordinance to be withdrawn, and then we asked for the resignation of the whole cabinet—not only the minister of justice who issued the law, but also the prime minister, who repeatedly denied that he intended to pass such an ordinance, but nevertheless, worked on it—and then the resignation of the head of the Social Democrat Party, Liviu Dragnea, who was actually both the mastermind behind this plan and the main beneficiary of the emergency ordinance. It was a pardon law issued for no reason, only for the benefit of one person, named Liviu Dragnea, head of the largest party in Romania. So it was actually a law which hit at the core of the rule of law in Romania. This was unacceptable for all of us.

Have resignations happened after protests in recent Romanian history?

RV: Yes, actually, some of the most recent governments were deposed after such protests. I remember the Boc cabinet that resigned after a protest of 13,000, and the Ponta cabinet, which resigned after a protest of 20,000. The Grindeanu cabinet has caused another public rebellion, which has now lasted for two weeks, continuously. At the peak of this movement, day 6, there were more than 600,000 people in the streets, and it did not resign. It was a protest 20 or 25 times more numerous than the previous ones that managed to depose the Ponta cabinet—and even with that peak, the government did not care to resign.

People have been out on the streets every day since the 31st of January. Can you give us a brief timeline of the first week and the change that occurred on the 6th day?

RV: This is day 13 after the emergency ordinance was passed, and day 17 of the protest, because, as I’ve said before, they started prior to the issuing of this ordinance—when it was only a rumor and not a fact. The numbers have grown increasingly from day 1—or day 0—to day 6. On day 4, for example, there were 400,000 people in the streets, on day 5 there were 500,000, and on day 6, more than 600,000—which is, by the way, the largest mass protest in the whole history of Romania. And this timeline clearly shows, afterwards, the numbers have decreased, as is normal; what is happening now is what happened during the 1990 anti-communist protests in University Square. After a few days of very large numbers, the crowd has started to split and to go alternatively to the protests in order to keep the square alive. So they were doing shifts just to have a few thousand people every day protesting against the government to mark their presence, to make known the fact that they represent the whole huge crowd, outraged by the decisions of the government. This is what happens now. We want to show that our determination has not decreased after the unsatisfactory measures taken by the government.

These are peaceful protests. Can you describe the atmosphere?

RV: I’ve seen these protests both in Bucharest and in Sibiu, and, in both cities, the atmosphere is not only very peaceful—sometimes it even looks like a sort of hippie protest, with people playing violin or guitar, doing small plays and theatrical demonstrations—but it’s also very witty, full of humor. It’s both dark humor and very intelligent humor, sarcasm and lyricism. It’s very artsy, actually. It looks like a gathering of a very large creative, intelligent, funny, gifted part of Romania against a government which has never looked so unwitty, unintelligent, immoral, and repulsive—I think Romania has never seen such a repulsive government since the 1980s, actually.

And there are families at these protests?

RV: Yes. People bring their children. I’ve seen people revolted by the involvement of children in these protests, but people feel confident to bring children here exactly because they know that the crowd is so peaceful—and sentimental, actually. Imagine 300,000 people gathered in a square and not one act of violence happening. This is almost unbelievable and it tells a lot about the quality of the people involved in these protests. And it is important to have these children here. There were children in Prague, 1968; there were children in Berlin, 1989; bringing children to these acts of rebellion educates them in this civic spirit and it’s very important for them to know that this is how you defend democracy. If you don’t teach them from a small age, it’s much more difficult to educate them in this civic spirit afterwards. So this gives me hope that this movement in Romania is not only about today, it’s also about tomorrow. I’ve seen a very moving photo of a young guy, a teenager in the 1989 Romanian Revolution—which was very bloody—and he had this sign which read, “Our children will be free.” And, next to this image was a picture of a girl these days in Bucharest, saying, “The children of the revolution are here.” So it shows the continuity of a child who was there in the square in 1989, brought by her father or mother, and the very same child, in 2017, effectively defending democracy in Romania.

I heard there was a reading protest in Sibiu on Sunday, February 12th. Can you tell us more about that?

RV: Yes. I didn’t participate in it; I was on my way to Bucharest, to Victory Square, but I know about the organizers, some young actors from Sibiu, and I’ve seen pictures. 200 to 300 people gathered in the main square in Sibiu and quietly sat on benches or directly on the ground and read from Thoreau, for example, from On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, or from the Bible, or from Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Circle of Liars—the liars being the government and so on—so it’s also very effective, it’s so powerful to see these young people—not only young people were there, but they were the majority—using reading as a political tool against the corrupt government. It shows exactly what reading is about. It’s not only a private, intellectual act; it’s also public involvement in the life of the city. It gives back to reading a political function which it has lost—and, when we have, at the head of the most important state on earth, a person who has never been seen reading a book and is suspected of being at the level of a fourth-grade child in terms of literacy, it’s important to have these kinds of protests using reading as a political tool.

Protesters outside the government building in Bucharest hold up life-size cutouts of politicians in prison uniforms while cal
Protesters outside the government building in Bucharest hold up life-size cutouts of politicians in prison uniforms while calling for resignations.

What has been achieved so far?

RV: I would say half of the demands were fulfilled by the government. For one thing—and the most important—the ordinance was withdrawn. And the government has made the necessary moves in order to annihilate its legal effects; so, no person guilty of abuse or theft of public funds has been released from jail, which is very important. The minister of justice has been deposed, which is also very good. It’s important to know that the person directly responsible for this thing was punished. But then, the head of the government is still in office. And, the head of the Social Democrat Party—the mastermind and the main beneficiary—is still in office. And the people in the streets demand for their resignation, too, and I think the protests will not be over until they resign.

What are the next steps?

RV: I think the revolt is going to continue as it has this week. So, during weekdays, there are going to be protests—not very numerous, not very large, but to keep continuity. And on weekends we will see an increase in the numbers. Hopefully we’ll have hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets until these two demands, the resignation of the prime minister and the resignation of the head of the Social Democrat Party, take place.

This is an international time of resistance. #Resist is trending on social media, and #RomanianProtests is now trending on Twitter, the least popular social media platform in Romania. Do you think this Romanian model of protest is applicable to other countries as well?

RV: I have some Italian friends, for example, who wrote on my Facebook wall Saturday night that they want this model replicated in Italy because, they said, they have the same problem with politicians being exempt from taking responsibility for acts of public abuse, abusing public funds. I told them that it’s absolutely applicable. For example, let’s take this reading protest—everybody can get a book and go to a square and read, without even shouting, but showing us a protest against this governmental abuse. I totally think that this is the way citizens in a normal democracy, or in a democracy which tries to recover, should react. They cannot take away from us this taste of the rebellion, of public disobedience. Once we get started, it’s very difficult for the government to pretend that we are not there. Everybody sees that the public square is flooded with people playing intelligent games, using their phones—using the phones’ flashlights to create an illuminated mass of people, both physically and symbolically—so, I think it’s the most effective way of making governments step down.

On day 2 or 3 of our protest, the prime minister and the head of the Social Democrat Party held a press conference where they said it didn’t matter what we did in the streets, they would never withdraw this emergency ordinance. Three days afterwards, they were withdrawing it very quickly and desperately trying to create the legal maneuvers in order to annihilate the effects. So, even when the government doesn’t want to react, going there in the streets and protesting—by reading, tweeting, writing on Facebook, dancing, playing the guitar, doing a play, for example—it always works. It is the force of art, actually. I mean, seeing so many people gathered in a square is like living a fiction, it’s living a fairy tale. You think when you’re alone, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a million people gathered in a square and singing against the government—and it happens! And, all of a sudden, the government realizes the force of this realized fiction and steps back. It’s like a huge poem made of a million lines, each person being a line. No government can resist against such a huge poem. It’s like trying to resist against The Iliad or The Odyssey. You have no chance. So, it is absolutely applicable in every part of the world, yes.

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