A quarter of a century has passed since the Ceausescu regime fell in the bloodiest overthrow of a Stalinist regime in Eastern Europe. Where is Romania today, after 25 years of neoliberal capitalism?
There is little doubt about the fact that Ceausescu’s regime was, both politically and economically, the harshest “communist” regime in Eastern Europe, second only to Hoxha’s dictatorship in Albania. The Romanian Stalinist regime followed a circular trajectory. The 1950s were markedly Stalinist, being characterised by forced collectivisation and political terror. The 1960s (when Ceausescu came to power) brought relatively good standards of living and a certain relaxation of the bureaucratic oppression – the ‘liberal’ stage of Romanian Stalinism which continued through most of the 1970s. And finally, the 1980s which saw a regression, both in terms of living standards and political freedom, as the economy was burdened by foreign debt and ineffective domestic policies, while Ceausescu’s personal dictatorship increasingly suffocated the public space. Of course, this conventional and rather simplistic narrative of Romanian “communism” overlooks the complexities of each era: for instance, the 1950s also meant that, for the first time in their life, millions of peasants had access to healthcare and education for their children. My own parental grandfather was one of these peasants.
Nevertheless, while the last decade of Stalinism in Romania did amount to increasing material deprivation (including scarcity of basic foodstuffs such as meat or milk) and political oppression, the people who took the streets of Timisoara and then Bucharest in December 1989 did not ask for capitalism or free market laissez faire. Just like the miners in Valea Jiului (the main mining area in Romania) in 1977 or the factory workers in Brasov ten years later, the participants in the 1989 revolution initially asked for political freedom and better living standards. In what followed after 1989, they arguably got limited political freedom but only a few got better living standards (and we know that the former has little value without the latter). For the majority of the workers that took the streets in December 1989 saw their jobs vanish in the massive waves of workplace closures and privatisations that affected the Romanian industry in the following two decades. Deprived not only of their jobs but also of the sense of belonging to a post-communist society, they became the main losers of a revolution they had made possible and risked their lives for. Hence, it is mainly them who display today nostalgic attitudes toward the communist era – for them an era when, unlike today, they and their families at least had secure jobs, housing, health care and education (which obviously are not enough, but necessary nevertheless!).
Political establishment united in defence of neo-liberalism
There was a brutal fall in living standards following from the brutal process of privatisation and, particularly after 2009, the harsh austerity measures. Also striking however, was the outstanding lack of opposition to this process! On the one hand, the only significant (supposedly) left-wing party in the country, the Social Democratic Party (arguably the successor party of the Communist Party), enthusiastically enforced the neoliberal policies demanded by the Western capitalist establishment. In power for 12 of the last 25 years (1990-1996, 2000-2004, and since 2012 onwards), the SDP has been a markedly corrupt and oligarchic party, with an increasingly nationalist outlook, which continues to advance the neoliberal agenda of the EU, the US and the IMF. On the other hand, the trade union movement has been largely characterised by ever increasing passivity, largely due to the corruption of most of its leaders and their obedience to the SDP. It is particularly revealing that the 2010 austerity package – the harshest in Eastern Europe, with 15% cuts in pensions and social benefits, 25% cuts in the salaries in the public sector, and the closure of several hospitals – was met with very little resistance by the trade unions (eventually, the cuts in pensions were declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Justice).
But while the shift to the right of the country’s social democratic party and trade unions has reflected a global trend that characterised the last 30 years or so, at the same time there was a vocal complicity of the intellectual elites and of ’civil society’ in general that brought about the hegemony of neoliberalism in Romania in such a rapid and radical way. Endlessly advancing a fundamentalist form of anti-communism (without any “communism” left around to oppose) and a dogmatic allegiance to neoliberal capitalism, the Romanian intellectual and civil establishment provided the legitimacy needed for enforcing the main tenets of neoliberalism: privatisation, deregulation, lower taxation, cuts in public spending and weakening of workers’ rights etc. The neoliberal dogma became the undisputed paradigm in the Romanian public sphere – the new common sense that only fools or “crypto-communists” could be opposed to.
However, the neoliberal hegemony started to be challenged over the last five years due to the emergence of left-wing intellectual and social movements, such as ’CriticAtac’ and the Common Front for the Right to Housing from Bucharest and ’tranzit.ro’ from Cluj (Romania’s second city). More than anything, these groups started rebuilding and re-popularising the idea of being left-wing in Romania, without being immediately associated with Stalinism (which still happens very often unfortunately). Moreover, the anti-government protests in January 2012, which erupted over the centre-right government’s plan to privatise the ambulance service and finally led to the resignation of that government (the same that had implemented the brutal austerity package in 2010), were arguably the first time since the fall of Stalinism when explicitly anti-capitalist and particularly anti-corporation messages could be seen and heard publicly in Romanian. Such messages intensified in September 2013, when people took the streets of Bucharest and Cluj for several weeks protesting against a Canadian corporation’s gold mining project which had catastrophic social and ecological consequences. These protests turned out to be the biggest in Romania in the last twenty years. They eventually forced the Parliament, controlled by the SDP to reject the project, which had previously been supported by the SPD led government (see this article for more details).
Most recently, the SPD’s candidate in last November’s presidential elections, the current Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, surprisingly lost in the second round after an extremely arrogant electoral campaign that alienated much of the youth and middle class. The winner was the candidate of the centre-right coalition the Christian-Liberal Alliance, Klaus Johannis. With certain achievements as the mayor of Sibiu (one of Transylvania’s main cities and cultural capital of Europe in 2007) and coming from a German ethnic background, Johannis was seen as the ‘outsider’ who will reform the Romanian political system in a ’new beginning’ for this country. However, Johannis was the candidate of a coalition formed by the Democrat Liberal Party and the National Liberal Party – two neoliberal parties, members of the European People’s Party, and even more loyal to the interests of big capital than the SDP. It is highly likely that Johannis will be just another trustworthy ally of the Western neoliberal establishment in South-Eastern Europe (as a friend put it, the only difference is that now the Romanian president will be able to take orders from Merkel without the need of translators).
With the SPD losing the presidential elections for the third time in a row after conducting a rather right-wing populist campaign, there is now an ongoing debate – mostly online – about the need for a new party of the Romanian left. Most commentators are calling for the creation of a pragmatic, centre-left party that would defend the “social-democratic” ideas betrayed by the SDP. However, the real need in Romania right now is for a radical left party, that would oppose neoliberalism, in particular, and capitalism in general. Of course, such a party would link the need for immediate overthrow of capitalism to campaigns and a programme on more specific issues, such as the minimum wage, social housing or the rights of the employees. Carrying out campaigns on such issues, which could easily appeal to many people, would help to mobilise broad sections of workers and youth and deepen the understanding of the nature of the system and need to overthrow it. The history of the twentieth century has proven that no reform is safe under capitalism; that every reform is a temporary concession from a threatened ruling class that will seek to get rid of reforms as soon as they can (and the current economic crisis is just such a context,). Therefore, as everywhere else, the ultimate goal of such a party would be replacing capitalism with a democratically controlled economy – an economy run by all in the interests of all.
While the heavy legacy of Stalinism and the 25 years of neoliberal hegemony can make the task of opposing capitalism from a socialist position complicated in Romania, today we are arguably witnessing the most favourable moment since the 1989 Revolution for undertaking such a task and all the challenges it involves.