On Tuesday Victor Ponta’s government became the third Romanian government since 1989 – or rather the fourth, if you count Ceausescu’s - to fall after disturbances in the streets. This makes Romania sound like Latin America, though Romania becomes less Latin American and more European every day.
In fact the crowds in front of the government building on Monday and Tuesday nights, as I walked home from my office, which faces it, were large but not very large. Likewise the crowds in University Square – I live nearby. It was nothing like the tightly packed scenes after the presidential elections in 2004 when Traian Basescu unexpectedly defeated Adrian Nastase or in 2014 when Klaus Iohannis unexpectedly defeated Victor Ponta. On both those occasions the crowd was impelled by possibly groundless fears that the Social Democratic government might rig the result. As for the scenes when Romania amazingly knocked England out of the UEFA cup in 2000 that was the closest I hope I shall ever see to the a revolution. This week the crowds were sombre, not rumbustious.
Why is this tradition of governments falling after disturbances in the streets emerging?
Because Romania was the only country in Communist Europe where the communists were removed by a revolution. It is a folk memory of the December revolution. As the discredited philosopher Marx said of the French revolution of 1848, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. I was not here when Petre Roman’s government fell from power in September 1991, after the miners marched on Bucharest at the summons of President Iliescu and the secret services, but I remember being tear gassed trying to get past the anti-austerity demonstrations in January 2012 which led to Emil Boc’s fall.
The difference between 1991, 2012 and now, as political analyst Ion Cristoiu pointed out, is that the dissatisfaction with the Government this time was purely on what he calls moral, as opposed to economic, grounds. The economy is suddenly steaming ahead after years of intense pain.
In fact Victor Ponta was likely to fall at any moment – he remained in office only because the governing Social Democrats who wanted to get rid of him did not do so for fear that the centre-right President would engineer a Prime Minister from the centre right. This is exactly what the last president Traian Basescu would have done and did do in 2005. I am told that the decision to force Victor Ponta to step down within a week or so had been taken by the Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea before the nightclub deaths. It was Mr. Dragnea who called the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Gabriel Oprea, telling them to resign. Mr. Oprea refused but Mr. Ponta agreed, thus bringing about the resignation of the government as a whole.
The people in the nightclub did not die because Victor Ponta did not do his job properly. In some ways he was reasonably good at his job. They died because fire regulations are enforced by officials who are remarkably stupid and corrupt. I know this because people who deal with them tell me so, but I knew it anyway, because so are officials throughout Romania. So are the politicians too. Today we have the curious spectacle of President Iohannis speaking to representatives of the protesters. It’s very odd, as if they have more authority than the elected representatives of the people. But no one has less respect in Romania than elected politicians and no one less deserves respect, so perhaps it is not odd.
Romanians want to dissolve the political class and elect another. And, amazingly enough, the political class is seemingly being dissolved, or at least decimated, by the wave of prosecutions by the DNA (Anti-Corruption Agency), aided by the secret services. But where will a new political class come from and a new elite?
The Communists did many terrible things to Eastern Europe. The most serious were the vast numbers of deaths they caused and the lives they wrecked, but not far behind was the systematic destruction of the elite of each country in the Communist bloc. Once elites have been smashed it takes several generations to recreate them.