Dignity on the Prut River

Romania and Moldova, despite historical, cultural and social ties, are currently two distant worlds. But in both countries there is an ongoing dispute on the understanding of dignity, which has become a key category in European politics.

George Simon arrived at the Romanian-Moldovan border on the Prut River on 15 March 2021. He was on his way to the funeral of Nicolae Dabija, a writer and politician, a symbolic figure for the unionist movement that seeks to unite the two states. But Simon did not make it to the ceremony. At the border, he found out that the five-year ban on entering the Republic of Moldova imposed on him in 2018 was still in effect. He appealed to Maia Sandu, the incoming Moldovan president, for help. She replied that she was very sorry, but the ban on entry into the country was a matter for the judicial system, not the head of state.

Simon is the leader of the far-right AUR (Alliance for Romanian Unity) party, which, to the surprise of most observers, entered the Romanian parliament in December 2020 with the support of 9% of voters. Standing on the border, he announced the creation of a sister party in Moldova. A few years ago, he began his political career by rehashing unionist slogans and organizing tumultuous demonstrations in Moldova, for which he received the entry ban.

Romania and Moldova, despite historical, cultural and social ties, are currently two distant worlds in political terms. Their place in the international system, degree of modernization and political discourse are completely different. But in both countries you can clearly see a tendency that is one of the driving forces of political life in Europe: a dispute over the understanding of dignity, which has become a key category in politics.

For some, the most important thing is the dignity of the individual in his or her relationship with the elite and the state. This approach gives rise to bonds of a civic nature. Others want to defend, above all, the dignity of traditions and symbols, and the historical communities created around them. In the fall of 2020, Maia Sandu ‘turned the tables’ in Moldovan politics by moving away from the identity narrative to fight for the honesty of the elite and for civic values. George Simon also made a breakthrough in his own country by doing the exact opposite: he deprived the post-communists of their temporary monopoly on identity narrative, making him a genuine threat to liberal forces.

Who Soros Wanted to Kill

It seemed that the parliamentary elections in Romania in December 2020 would spell the downfall of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the triumph of liberals, i.e. the National Liberal Party (PNL), which is firmly rooted in Romanian politics, as well as two groupings that are primarily the voice of the young generation – USR (The Save Romania Union) and PLUS, which put up a joint electoral list. But this was not the case: PSD did not collapse, the triumph of the liberals was rather moderate and public attention focused largely on the far-right AUR (Alliance for Romanian Unity).

After 2015, the Romanian Social Democrats ideologically began to increasingly resemble anti-liberal right-wing groups from Central Europe, such as the Hungarian Fidesz and the Polish Law and Justice.

PSD, a post-communist party, ruled and co-ruled Romania for the better part of the last three decades. During this time, it repeatedly changed its political profile, all the while being a party representing the classic post-communist elite and its heirs. After 2015, the Romanian Social Democrats ideologically began to increasingly resemble anti-liberal right-wing groups from Central Europe, such as the Hungarian Fidesz and the Polish Law and Justice. Their narrative became increasingly anti-EU, with conservatism, tradition and sovereignty being the key elements of their agendas. At one point, it was even suggested that George Soros – for many a symbol of liberalism and the evil spirit of world politics – had ordered the assassination of the PSD leader Liviu Dragnea. The dispute with Brussels, which pushed PSD onto an anti-liberal path, was mainly about the rule of law. The Social Democrats tampered with the criminal code and the structure of the judiciary in order to protect their leaders, above all Dragnea himself, from criminal prosecution.

The mass protests of November 2015, which erupted after a fire at the Collective Club in Bucharest, should be considered the beginning of a generational revolt against PSD, with an evident anti-corruption bent.

This caused massive resistance among Romanians, especially representatives of the younger generation, who protested en masse in the streets of major cities in 2015-2017. The mass protests of November 2015, which erupted after a fire at the Collective Club in Bucharest (64 people died), should be considered the beginning of a generational revolt against PSD, with an evident anti-corruption bent. It quickly became clear that the venue should not have been allowed to operate. The main slogan of these demonstrations was simple and apt: “Corruption kills!”

Swept by this wave of anger, PSD ceded power for several months to a technical government headed by Dacian Ciolos, the former EU commissioner for agriculture. But after another election, the Social Democrats managed to rebuild their majority in parliament. A three-year government began, marked by frequent changes of prime ministers, growing social discontent, and a dispute over the independence of the judiciary. This led to PSD’s historic defeat in the European Parliament elections in May 2019 (only 22.5% of the vote) and the arrest of Liviu Dragnea. Six months later, PSD left the coalition and the National Liberal Party took power, forming a minority government.

The Shades of Romanian Liberalism

PNL can be seen as a mirror image of the Social Democrats. Ideologically, it has always tried to present the opposite profile, but in terms of structure, actual operation and the type of personalities it attracted, many similarities could be seen. This grouping is also frequently charged with corruption, but the extremely brazen behaviour of PSD leaders in recent years has allowed the PNL to present itself in a positive light. Its great asset is President Klaus Iohannis, perceived as an honest, reasonable and serious politician. He secured re-election in 2019 with 60% of the vote in the second round and should now be considered the most important leader of the liberal camp.

The parliamentary elections of December 2020 could thus be seen as a clash between the traditional elite, which uses identity politics to cover up corruption, and a conglomerate of forces subscribing to a civic and liberal discourse.

In contrast, the USR party, originating from urban and civic movements, has become an expression of a strong desire for social change. It appeared on the political scene during the protests caused by the fire in the Collective Club, and in the next elections entered parliament with a 9% result. A few years later, they were joined by the PLUS party, founded by Dacian Ciolos and trying to represent a meritocratic and modern style.

The parliamentary elections of December 2020 could thus be seen as a clash between the traditional elite, which uses identity politics to cover up corruption, and a conglomerate of forces subscribing to a civic and liberal discourse. After the votes were counted, it turned out that the victory of the latter was much smaller than expected, and the formation of a coalition would only be possible by inviting a party representing the Hungarian minority to join it. One of the factors behind such an outcome was a very low turnout (32%) and the burden of governing during a pandemic. And what is more, many young people who wanted to say goodbye to the ‘barons’ from PSD turned to a new political force; one that seemed to represent a generational shift and revived a tale of Romanian strength and pride long unheard of on this scale.

Only a year ago, hardly anyone had heard of AUR, and a few weeks before the elections no one saw them as having a chance to enter parliament. But the time of the pandemic proved to be a perfect moment for Georg Simon and his companions. They drew attention to themselves with coronavirus scepticism and resistance to government-imposed restrictions. At the same time, they brandished a story that many Romanians had apparently been waiting for: the family is the foundation of society and must be protected; the nation is a community of people united by language, culture and history, and these values must be defended against attempts to dilute them; historical Romanian lands should be reunited; European civilization is built on the Christian religion, to which we must be faithful. On top of this, George Simon seemed to be styling himself on Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the leader of the fascist right from the interwar period, and his political partner Claudiu Târziu, a veteran of the fight to ban abortion, secured the support of a large section of the clergy.

This nationalist-religious vein had been largely absent from the Romanian political scene for twelve years, but the increasing discreditation of the post-communists through corruption created a space for AUR. And so, the liberal-civic breakthrough in Romania, expected for years, has also brought a big lump of nationalist bitterness.

Sandu Changes the Parameters of the Dispute

On the other side of the Prut, Maia Sandu has made great efforts to change the parameters of political dispute in the former Soviet republic. Moldovan politics has been ruled for thirty years by identity issues: the problem of geopolitical choice, defining the shape and nature of the national community, and even the name of the language.

Sandu had been squeezed for a long time into the framework of identity politics – she was portrayed and perceived as a politician representing a pro-Romanian option, both in terms of foreign policy objectives and in terms of the perceived nature of the Moldovan community. Not without her own contribution; such a perception was fostered by her positive statements about Marshal Ion Antonescu, the issue of reunification with Romania, or the very fact of her participation in the Romanian presidential election. It should also be remembered that in multi-ethnic, partly Russian-speaking and identity-divided Moldova, ‘pro-Romanian’ means ‘anti-Russian’.

Moldovan politics has been ruled for thirty years by identity issues: the problem of geopolitical choice, defining the shape and nature of the national community, and even the name of the language.

During her premiership, and especially during her presidential campaign, Sandu made serious moves to step out of this framework, such as speaking Russian frequently in public and a significant shift in her own narrative from identity themes to issues of honesty and citizenship. Instead of geopolitical choice and traditional pro-Western rhetoric, she focused on the idea of a European model of life. This is how she is trying to shape the political dispute now.

It can be expected that as the social crises caused by the pandemic deepen, the popularity of AUR in Romania will grow. Georg Simon’s arrival at the Romanian-Moldovan border and his announcement of the creation of a sister party on the other side of the Prut River was purely symbolic for the time being. It can also be, however, a major threat for Mai Sandu’s political project. In the long run, her success depends on whether she will be able to convince the Moldovans that dignity belongs above all to every human being, no matter what language they speak or what traditions they cultivate.

Piotr Oleksy

is a historian and press commentator working at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań; he is the author of two books on Transnistria.

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