Mass protests in Romania join ‘Balkans-wide wave’

Mass protests in Romania join ‘Balkans-wide wave’

BUCHAREST - Agence France-Presse
Mass protests in Romania join ‘Balkans-wide wave’

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against the opening of a gold mine in Bucharest. The government has approved a draft law enabling Canada’s Gabriel Resources to open the mine. REUTERS photo

A fortnight of protests in Romania against plans for Europe’s biggest open-cast gold mine have joined an unusual wave of grassroots opposition across the Balkans, analysts say.

The Romanian civic movement, unprecedented since the 1990s, follows protests by similarly young, educated, middle-class Slovenians, Bosnians, Bulgarians or Turks venting their anger at politicians accused of cronyism and incompetence. “These demonstrations are quite different from organized political rallies or protests for better salaries or pensions. People gathering here are concerned about the future, they are not asking a pay rise but fight more out of idealism,” sociologist Mircea Kivu said. “What you see this year, from Slovenia to Bulgaria, is a revolt of educated, middle-class people who grew up in political apathy. All started with a relatively minor controversy, but quickly turned into a general cry for change,” Joost van Egmond, a Dutch journalist who covered the various protest movements in the region, said.

‘Turkish summer, Romanian autumn’

Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia are among the poorest nations in Europe. Artists, managers, engineers and students have all joined the rallies in Romania, which have seen many arriving on their bikes and mothers pushing their babies in prams. Most are aged between 18 and 35. The protests are colorful, featuring peaceful sit-ins on the capital’s main boulevard, improvised concerts of plastic bottles filled with coins or pebbles and home-made banners. “Arab Spring, Turkish summer, Romanian autumn,” read a banner in one of the Bucharest rallies held on University Square, where protests against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu erupted in 1989, leading to his downfall. 

“We are seeing an unprecedented phenomenon since the 1990s with a real opposition coagulating within civil society,” Victoria Stoiciu, an analyst at the Friedrich Egbert Foundation says.

It breaks the “suffocating civic apathy in Romania,” she said. A decision by the center-left government to clear the way for Europe’s biggest open-cast gold mine in the Carpathian village of Rosia Montana was the trigger in Romania.Canadian firm Gabriel Resources, through its 80 percent-owned subsidiary Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, plans to extract 300 tons of gold using 12,000 tons of cyanide a year. 

After promising to block the mine during the electoral campaign, Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s ruling coalition approved a draft law making it easier for the company to expropriate private lands and circumvent existing environmental and urban planning regulations.

“Rosia Montana has touched a sensitive point because it threatens values that young people believe in: ecology, transparency, the right to be consulted,” Codruta Cernea, a visual artist said. Cernea, 34, had never taken part in street protests before. 

Disappointed by Romanian politics, she had chosen to focus on other subjects for years and even once thought of moving abroad. But she is now determined to stay in Romania. “Politicians thought we would be indifferent and would not react but I think a new generation is starting to be aware of its voice,” she adds. “We were used to remaining silent. These protests show that we did not completely fall asleep, that we still believe in something,” Cristina Flutur, who shared the 2012 Cannes Best Actress Award for her role in the Romanian drama “Beyond the Hills,” said. Social networks are the main tools used to mobilize and share information.

“The traditional press has lost credibility because of its heavy reliance on advertising from the Gold Corporation,” said Emanuel, a 21-year old student. The Active Watch press monitoring agency has documented cases of what it called “censorship” and “bias.”

After a week of protests, one party of the ruling coalition said the project should be scrapped, while Ponta said the bill would be “rejected in Parliament.” But the vote is still pending.