Written by: Vlad Adamescu
The end of 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of communism in Europe. In 1989, peaceful protests throughout the Warsaw Treaty states (except for the bloodbath in Romania in December 1989) brought down the totalitarian systems imposed by Soviet armies following WWII. However, the past few years have been witness to the largest protests since the fall of communism in countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. Many claim the respective citizens are on the streets to ‘complete’ the already three-decade-long revolution. As we will discover, the protests in these countries share an overarching cause and theme: corruption.
In Romania and Slovakia, the beginning of mass street protests can be pin-pointed to two traumatic events: the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire and the 2018 Jan Kuciak murders respectively. In Romania, 64 people died after a fire engulfed a nightclub in Bucharest, allegedly due to poor enforcement of safety regulations. The authorities’ immediate response to the fire was visibly incompetent and disorganised. Dozens died throughout the country from infections contracted in unsanitary hospitals. Mourning soon turned into anger, which resulted in mass protests against prime minister Victor Ponta of the ruling Social Democrats. The public held him morally accountable for the endemic corruption in Romania, as well as for its deadly repercussions. This collective conviction gave name to the widely used slogan ‘Corruption Kills’ adopted in all later protests.
In Slovakia, the moral catalyst of mass demonstrations was the assassination of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in their home, in February 2018. Mr Kuciak was investigating links between the ‘Ndrangheta Italian crime syndicate and high-ranking government officials as prominent as aides of prime minister Robert Fico. In a desperate attempt to manage the crisis, Fico organised an unusual press conference posing next to one million euros in cash, which he promised as a reward to anyone who could provide information about the murders. However, this was not enough to tame public discontent. Pressures continued, with as many as 80,000 angry people filling the squares of Bratislava and 50 other cities. In what has become common practice in Eastern Europe, Mr Fico resigned the premiership but still retains power. He remains the leader of the largest party, Smer (Social Democrats), whilst his selected successor, Peter Pellegrini, leads a puppet government.
Mr Liviu Dragnea, former leader of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) employed a similar tactic. Barred from serving as prime minister because of his criminal record of rigging a referendum in 2012, Mr Dragnea managed to install close associates as prime ministers, removing them from office if they dared go against him. This was done with both Mr Sorin Grindeanu and his successor, Mr Mihai Tudose, after PSD won a majority of seats in the 2016 legislative election.
Despite their election manifesto, all PSD governments were focused on judicial changes aimed specifically at intimidating prosecutors and judges, to the point of helping the hundreds of national and local party leaders with corruption charges. The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), led by Ms Laura Codruța Kövesi, had made dangerous steps in combatting high-level corruption, including the arrest and successful conviction of 9 ministers, 21 MPs, and 1 MEP. Many of the investigated cases concerned abuse of office, thus sparking the largest protests in the post-communist history of Romania. In January 2017, the government issued an emergency ordinance, requiring no legislative approval. The quietly-adopted, late-night ordinance redefined the criminal offence of ‘abuse of office’ by public officials; a move widely seen as helping Mr Dragnea, who was at the time investigated for this very offence. Distress about the government also moving forward with a proposal to offer amnesty to various criminals currently in jail, precipitated a public response. In the following days, half a million people took to the streets in all major cities: the largest protests since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Due to the protests, the government later withdrew the infamous ordinance, which would have made legal various corrupt practices that had just begun to be properly investigated and scrutinised. Nevertheless, justice laws rejected by Romanian judicial institutions as well as by European rule of law monitoring agencies have since been approved by Parliament.
In the Czech Republic, corruption has also been at the forefront of political confrontations. Current billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis and his ANO political movement (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) won the 2017 legislative elections on an anti-corruption platform. Ironically, Mr Babis himself was subsequently put under investigation for hiding his ownership of a farm and conference centre known as ‘Stork’s nest’. Allegedly, he hid this fact to benefit from more than 2 million euros in EU funds. He is also under investigation after a leaked EU Commission Report revealing his complicity in yet another conflict of interests: his continued involvement, whilst in office, in his agricultural and media conglomerate, Agrofert. The day after the investigation (which was dropped in September 2019) was initiated by Czech prosecutors, Babis replaced the Justice minister with a former aide to President Milos Zeman, his political ally. This move triggered the most substantial protests since the Velvet Revolution, with a quarter of a million people flooding Letna Park in the capital city of Prague in summer 2019.
It is striking that all these mass movements share common features, especially with regards to governments’ response. Taking their cue from prime minister Viktor Orban, all three concerned governments have baselessly claimed the protests were financed by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros (with Mr Dragnea even claiming an assassination attempt was ordered by Mr Soros against his life). Babis, Dragnea and Fico have allegedly garnered massive conspiracies against them, denouncing the involvement of foreign powers acting in collusion with domestic security agencies. What is even more problematic, is that this occurs in a region where most politicians are former leading members of the pre-1989 communist parties, with Mr Babis being a proven informer for Czechoslovakia’s former secret police, the StB. Finally, through control of the media, especially TV stations, these leaders have all analogously sought to delegitimise protestors, portraying them as pawns to the schemes of major foreign powers, as fascists or as communists, or by accusing them of attempted coups.
The last few years have seen unprecedented public outcry by Central and Eastern European citizens against what they perceive to be deeply corrupt political classes. The European Union has played a crucial role in the anti-corruption fight in these countries and for this reason, populist politicians have turned against it, embracing eurosceptic and nationalist rhetoric. They are employing the tactic widely used in the last century, blaming the Other: in this case, Brussels. These are the kind of politicians that take credit for projects completed with EU structural funds, and later blame the same EU for domestic economic failure, for which they are solely responsible. We can see this happening on larger scales in Hungary and Poland, but Romanian, Slovak, and Czech leaders have not shied away from making anti-EU remarks when it furthered their political agendas. This is not sustainable: it leads to isolation and reduced authority on the EU stage, whilst also strengthening Russia’s influence in the region, a prospect no former Warsaw Treaty state should take lightly. Anti-EU rhetoric goes hand in hand with corruption and a weakening of the judiciary (through court-packing or simply the dismissal of independent judges and prosecutors), which in turn negatively affects democracy. Massive protests have slowed down the spectre of illiberalism haunting these former communist states, but protests and public engagement can only do so much. Voting remains essential to democracy, and there are some positive developments: Slovakia recently elected a reformist president, Zuzana Caputova, with no ties to the former regime. In Romania, a new political alliance unconnected to the country’s communist past has emerged and came in third with 20% of the vote in the European Parliament elections this year. Mr Dragnea is currently serving a three and a half years sentence after being convicted on yet another corruption charge in May 2019. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is preparing for new protests in November, marking thirty years since the start of the Velvet Revolution. The struggle against totalitarianism remains a potent memory and a source of inspiration for many in the former Eastern Bloc; it is the ultimate driver of the region’s protests, in hope for a liveable, corruption-free tomorrow.
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DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.