SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 174 Jan/Dec 2013/14

Romania’s autumn of protests

The biggest protests in Romania in 20 years broke out on 1 September over government backing for a controversial mining project in Transylvania. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the capital, Bucharest, the second city, Cluj-Napoca, and other major cities. The parliament’s final decision on the project is imminent.

Rosia Montana, a region of 16 villages founded by the Romans in the 2nd century, is considered to be the largest goldfield in Europe. In 1999, a mining licence was granted to Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC). This is 80% owned by Toronto-listed Gabriel Resources, founded by Romanian-born Australian businessman, Frank Timis, and 19% by RAC Deva, a Romanian state-run company. Timis was recently declared the richest Australian living in London.

The project is for cyanide-based extraction of 300 tons of gold and 1,600 tons of silver over 16 years. This would create a claimed 3,600 jobs and a nearly $7.5 billion in profits, although the numbers are hotly disputed – many talk of only 600 jobs. Advocates of the project, including local residents, high-ranking politicians and well-established journalists (some of them generously incentivised) claim it represents Romania’s best chance to gain from the mines and to improve the lives of people in the area.

The opponents include hundreds of local people, the Romanian Academy, Romanian Cultural Institute, the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches, a government panel from Hungary, NGOs, 83 Romanian professors of economy and several foreign archaeologists. They argue that the RMGC project would displace over 2,000 people and completely erase four mountains, five churches, four cemeteries and 2,000-year-old Roman sites. The use of 40 tons of cyanide would damage the area’s ecosystem. It is to be stored in a 300-hectare lake, risking catastrophic spillages. No one is certain what would happen to those refusing to give up their homes and lands. Many ask why the state does not extract the gold using classic mining methods.

Despite tens of millions of euros spent on advertising and lobbying, RMGC has been stalled since 1999 because of noncompliance with Romanian or European environmental laws. However, at the end of August, the Social-Liberal Union (SLU) government coalition suddenly backed the project, sending it to parliament for approval – the SLU has a strong majority in both parliamentary chambers. It won the 2012 general elections explicitly promising to cancel the Rosia Montana mining project!

The government is aiming to change environmental laws so that they fit the RMGC project’s shortcomings. It will also allow this private company to expropriate the property of people refusing to leave their homes and land. Along with the government’s breach of its own promises, these anti-constitutional provisions have infuriated many who had been indifferent to the issue previously.

On 1 September, vast numbers of people took to the streets in what some are now calling the ‘Romanian autumn’. For the last ten weeks, thousands have occupied the main squares in Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca and other cities. Their numbers increase to tens of thousands every Sunday. The witty – ‘If you wanna dig, come to the Bucharest subway’, ‘Win your gold at the Olympic Games’, ‘Romania is mined by a corrupt government’ – and peaceful nature of the protests has attracted many new people. It also wrong-footed the authorities who are waiting for any excuse for suppressing the protests.

The movement is following the Occupy pattern, with no formal leaders and most of the protesters consisting of middle-class students and professionals aged 20-40. The idea of approaching the trade unions has not been given any serious attention. The issues they tackle range from Rosia Montana to the corruption of the political elite and harsh austerity measures. There is an ideologically eclectic mix in the protests – similar to Istanbul this summer – including liberals, anarchists, far-right nationalists, greens, socialists and ‘apolitical’ youth.

However, the harmony is far from perfect. There has been intimidation, and even one attack by some far-right nationalists against a group of anarchists. Some on the left say it shows that the protests are gaining an increasingly nationalist outlook. No strategy has been put forward so far for preventing and containing future conflicts between protesters, which speaks of the lack of cohesion that characterises the movement.

The mainstream media have dubbed all of the protesters ‘hipsters’ in a clearly derogatory manner. The underlying point is that young middle-class urban people are protesting over a very local issue affecting the unemployed miners living in the area who, understandably, want the RMGC project to start. Some claim that the protesters are paid by foreign NGOs wishing to undermine Romania’s economic interests, or by rival companies who want to get their hands on Rosia Montana. The negative attitude is no surprise given the amount of money RMGC has spent on advertising over the last ten years. The most hostile media are precisely those that have gained the most.

Despite this, the protests have attracted new supporters every week. Concerned with the electoral impact these large-scale protests might have in the European elections next spring, all three major parties, including the two in government, have suddenly turned against the mining project. The third is the centre-right Democrat Liberal Party, led by president Basescu, once a vocal supporter of the RMGC bid. Even the prime minister, Victor Ponta, said that MPs should vote against the project.

Following a negative report on the project by a special parliamentary commission, on 19 November the Senate (the upper house of parliament) rejected the RMGC project by 119 to three, with six abstentions. The final vote in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower, more powerful house) is expected to go the same way. But these apparently auspicious decisions may leave the door open for the project to go through in a slightly different form. Protesters fear that the authorities just want more time to change the legal framework and make the project lawful. Nonetheless, these decisions are undeniable victories of the street and provide hope for the future of a civil society that, not too long ago, seemed inert and apolitical with no resources for genuine resistance.

In the meantime, the American giant, Chevron, has suspended its plans to start fracking for shale gas at Pungesti, eastern Romania. This decision followed protests by local farmers, and their suppression by the notoriously aggressive gendarmerie. While the highly influential US ambassador (a former Chevron lobbyist) is a vocal supporter of this project, there is nationwide opposition. Chevron was granted leases for over two million acres of land in a deal signed in 2010 under similarly shady circumstances as in RMGC’s case. Now the street movement is trying to unify the two struggles: both highlight the complicity between state authorities and big corporate interests.

These struggles come in the context of a new awakening in Romanian society, especially among young educated people, who are coming to terms with the failure of capitalist restoration to fulfil its promise to improve the lives of the majority. Left-wing ideas are becoming less taboo and are an integral part of these protests, although the movement as a whole is still far from an openly socialist stance. There is a great deal of anti-corporate, if not anti-capitalist, feeling that those on the left can build on.

This incipient new Romanian left has to try to unite in a single national movement, and to start attracting the working class to its side. That would greatly increase the capacity to fight against the dictatorship of big business and its political cronies.

Vladimir Bortun

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