Political Crisis in Romania – there is still hope, but only just

Political crisis in Romania – why there is still hope, but only just

Romania is in dire straits. Let us be honest : when has this country NOT been in dire straits ? Anyone who bothers even the briefest look at Romania’s past would realise it has dug for itself a history-deep gorge of self-loathing and annihilation.

But let me not forget that i am writing this article in English, the language of empiricism and dispassionate analysis. Out of respect for Anglo-Saxon common sense and my training as a political scientist I shall try to be dispassionate. But here’s the rub exposed by the current Romanian situation: it cannot be apprehended, let alone understood, without embracing pathos, and that very Romanian passion for contradiction and inconsistency, otherwise known as the absurd.

For, Romania of August 2012, EU member with Schengen aspirations, is in throws of a debate on people’s census that the English had at the time of the Norman conquest, in 1066, and Domesday, when William the Conqueror ordered the tallying of the inhabitants in the newly conquered territories.

In the Romania of August 2012, in a bid to oust the President, the government is contesting the very electoral lists that brought it to power but two months ago, and whose update some of its representatives ardently fought before local elections.

It is the same country in which in a twist of absurdly clear logic, the suspended President says he cannot resign from his position, as he is actually suspended from it!

The first thing to bear in mind when approaching Romania as a subject of political analysis is that historian Lucian Boia’s metaphor of “Romania – the frontier country” is not just a figure of speech. Romania is not the terrain of epic fights between East and West, nor the scene of a battle between Modernity and the Dark Ages. It is, however, the theatre of operations of two broad and competing trends of state-making, which have played their influence out for centuries.

One is what could be called an Eastern (mostly Ottoman) way of state-making, based on elite co-optation, in which rulers kept their office depending on the tribute they paid to the Porte, were expecting replacement as leaders rotation was part of the system and rested their autority on networks of questionable loyalties, whose members would switch allegiance as soon as the wind blowing from Istanbul changed. This has favoured the emergence of what historian R. Theodorescu called transactionism, an endless series of quid-pro-quos between rulers and would-be ruled, all concerned with getting the best out of a bad deal.

On the other hand there is the modern Western state-making, which fascinated and attracted because it seemed less subject to the arbitrary, as it produced strong and impersonal institutions based on checks and balances to the authority and power of the sovereign. It arose  from the struggles of conquering armies and rival lords, all these paid for by guilds of  merchants and wealthy bankers, in an unending quest for power and influence.

These competing state-making practices played out and intermeshed for centuries on the territory of Romanian principalities, which essentially means Romanians have periodically been at war with each other and with the outside forces for a very long time.

The common element of these two state-making trends was the persona of the ruler. Depending on his charisma and coercion power it was possible to institute authority a level (or more) up from the arbitrary. The big historical figures of the Romanian voïevods are all examples of that – reigning during what is considered somewhat of a golden period in Romania’s history. They had to fight proportionally more with outside forces than with inside ones (although these were not nil). And they had great political projects, such as consolidation of the state and possible the unity of the Principalities. Interestingly, the first of them who tried to unify Transylvania, Moldova and Wallachia was killed only a month after the brief union.

When the co-optation type of state-making was more prominent, typically at a point when Romanian Principalities were most subdued to the Ottoman Porte, the charisma of leaders was less used towards a common great political project and more towards keeping personal power at the expense of emerging state structures.

Most Romanians would probably yawn at this story, which they largely grew up with, but I personally find that its consequences are to be found to this day in Romanian political culture and the practices that make it up.

It is no coincidence that today, the heated debate is coated in terms of the arbitrary power that the leftist political formation who recently won the favours of the electorate exercises, and the survival of political institutions such as the Constitutional Court, the Commission against corruption, the ethics Commission, etc. And it is no coincidence the Left is framing its strategy against the President in terms of his persona, whilst at the same time weakening institutions with a deluge of contradictory emergency ordinances.

For a multiplicity of reasons (EU membership and pressure, better information, increased political sense coming with a change of generation) the Romania of the past 20 years has witnessed nothing short of a small miracle: it is slowly sinking in that rulers ARE NOT the institutions they represent.

Whatever the mistakes and petty deeds of the currently suspended President, and there are many, during the past eight years the justice system has become more independent, prosecutors have more courage in high profile cases and the degree of impunity has slowly decreased. The Constitutional Court is solicited and its decisions (until now) respected.

However, there are still some who continue to confuse personal power with power OVER the state. This goes through threats to dismiss the judge of the aforementioned court and anyone with an opinion different from theirs.

Why I am hopeful: the way in which the response to the debate is framed and resistance organised suggest that at least one part of the population and public opinion understand and uphold the message that democratic institutions must be preserved  and consolidated irrespective of those who temporarily lead them.

The other passion the Romanians have is for the melodramatic, with circus overtones. A recent instance of this is the so-called suicide attempt by Adrian Nastase, former Prime Minister and member of the political current that has recently obtained the majority in Parliament. His governing principle for four years was that he was the institution he represented and therefore committed acts of high corruption and abuse of influence, and plain theft, for which he was indicted and put in jail for two years.

Yet, isn’t circus what emperors with no legitimacy and political project used to give to Rome’s citizens to numb their senses?

A last note I would like to make is regarding articles written by the foreign press. They make me smile , in general. It is possible to read between the lines that their authors are somewhat at a loss with what is going on, and they grip to facts and vague concepts such as “instability” and “corruption” as life and objectivity buoys. Perhaps reading a play or two by Eugene Ionesco would help. I think they should not shy away from calling a thief a thief (many Romanian politicians have been officially proven to be thieves); they should not shy away from  replacing “corruption” with the idea that the battle currently going on is also about Romania’s political ethos and the possibility for its elevation above the pettiness of personal gain, lest they fear getting close to the compromises that their own countries make as indifferent spectators to a farcical tragedy that echoes ominously their own condition.

NB For more on State making see:

Warmaking and statemaking by Charles Tilly

From bandits to bureaucrats:the Ottoman route to state centralization, Karen Barkey