Romania's Anti-Corruption Protests and the Burden of Shame

Protest against corruption – Bucharest 2017 – Piata Victoriei. PHOTO: Mihai Petre (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ana-Maria Dima

“We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.”
– Jean Paul Sartre, in his preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth

In the European Union, corruption seems to be Romania’s designated signature. Historically, the country, and indeed the wider region, have battled deeply ingrained practices, often illegal or borderline, designed to influence political and economic outcomes or gain benefits or favours. In the 10 years since Romania joined the EU, in fact, few other words have been as consistently and as repeatedly associated with Romania’s performance and political class. This was the case before the accession as well, when the special Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was set up by the European Commission for Bulgaria and Romania. This measure, which was without precedent in EU integration, was devised to reduce the level of corruption across the board, from the judiciary to high-level politics, but it was also meant to “tackle corruption on all fronts” as progress reports on the mechanism have highlighted.

Anyone living, studying or doing business in Romania—a society where the political class and the administrative apparatus, including nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers, are widely considered corrupt—would find it hard not to develop a mindset dominated by corruption, which is by nature all-pervasive. The need for changes of a “systemic dimension”, as the European Commission’s reports noted early on, have been an issue in Romania for decades now. But the prevalence of the idea of a deeply corrupt society begs some hard questions: are we, as citizens, by association just as corrupt as the “system” surrounding us? Can one escape corruption while being “surrounded” by it?

Romania’s current government was elected less than six months ago. The eruption of street protests in February contesting the Government’s decision to adopt an Emergency Ordinance were viewed largely as a reaction to corruption. The Ordinance, among other measures, decriminalised certain types of official misconduct and would have, at least in the eyes of the public, watered down existing anti-graft legislation. But these protests, the largest since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, leave behind many questions, especially in a country that has been “tackling corruption on all fronts” for over a decade under governments formed by the National Liberal Party, the Social Democrats, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, the Liberal Democrats and others.

Corruption comes in many shapes and forms, including tax evasion, abuse of power, bribes, conflict of interest, money laundering. It hides poverty and dysfunctionality, while concomitantly—and ironically—bringing them to light. But it also carries with it the idea of a tacit, yet omnipresent, complicity, notably in the case of citizens who may lack the understanding or knowledge of other ways to approach state authorities. So it is also a form of induced powerlessness. Anyone who has lived in Romania could be considered tainted as a consequence, for the image of widespread corruption in a country must encompass its citizenry, irrespective of how much they might wish to claim innocence.

So the narrative of corruption has become deeply embedded in our mindset, if not in our practices. The members of Romania’s educated middle class who took to the streets in February seemed  weighed down by an odd sense of shame, the kind of shame typically experienced in countries where the citizens are so fixated on imagining places utterly different from their own, that they end up despising themselves and each other in a process of constant wonder. It is the shame of Romanian guest labourers working in the EU, who might be abused in their host countries, but for “better”, if not outright “fairer” pay. And in any case, who is to say that abuse outside of your country is necessarily worse than abuse back home? And do workers whose livelihoods depend on their employers genuinely have a choice between the two?

There’s the bribe one instinctively prepares to offer nurses in hospitals in return for respectful treatment; the expectation that something extra will be demanded from those who want to correctly and fairly do business with the state or at times to receive some basic service; the small act of attention,as Romanians call it, needed to expedite a process, or facilitate the issuing of something like a driving licence to someone who passes the exam. But corruption goes beyond conditioning and the desire to influence the actions of public authorities: it becomes a reflex and a metric—if not the metric—against which most things are measured. And in the process we have come to believe that our society is indeed deeply dysfunctional compared to the rest of the EU, a belief that is corroding our sense of trust.

The protests in February brought out the shame deeply ingrained in our perception of ourselves, in a large-scale “go-out into the street and shout your lungs out” or “don’t just sit there, do something about it” kind of way. Our collective inferiority complex is deeply affected by corruption barometers and poverty indexes. We know we rank high on corruption and low on quality of life. We rank high on child poverty rates, highest on intra-EU migration. Poor deals in privatizing state-owned companies, the selling off of large swaths of the country’s arable land in the past ten years (currently half of Romania’s arable land is controlled by non-Romanians), mass migration and high rates of poverty are hardly the result of successful governing mandates. We know too, that we are a “source of cheap labour” for Europe. This lingering sense of inadequacy, this aspirational sense of the Other, living in places that are fair and just and “corruption-free”, these benchmarks which are only to be found far away from home, have permeated our collective imagination.

Yet in this scenario other questions come to light: if we are so profoundly corrupt, how do we handle things? Do we denounce each other? Can it be that the government is not the only corrupt entity, merely the one that is most scrutinized? How have major global companies entering the Romanian market dealt with the corruption, and in turn, how corrupt are they? Who is more corrupt, the government or the business sector? Can we escape the cycle of corruption in ways that do not seek political vindication, but—insofar as such a thing is possible—are still just? And if a system is so intrinsically corrupt, will the old corrupt figures not simply be replaced by others with similar values? The fight against corruption runs the risk of becoming an “eye for an eye” fight if such questions are not at the top of the agenda.

Yet, to have been seen and held in high esteem for protesting against corruption, even if only for a few days, has inspired a sense of pride and unity in Romania. A sense of togetherness that would not be quite so easily marred by shame, if it were not for the practices that occur daily in hospitals, perhaps in schools as well, or in town halls and local councils, where political and administrative leaders can still behave as God-given gifts to the world.

This knowledge no longer manifests only as discontent with our inability to “pull ourselves together”. Expressions such as “vreau o țară ca afară”—literally, to “want a country like countries abroad”—allude to an idealized western space and an imagined life where our sense of inadequacy would no longer haunt us. Romania was for a few days an inspirational place for many, where people took to the streets fiercely, yet peacefully, in order to demand that the corrupt should not be left unpunished, and also to acknowledge that the lingering weight of corruption exists well beyond the political figures who embody it.

We know this all too well, but somehow cannot rid ourselves of the shame of it, a shame that is imposed on us from many fronts, or perhaps one that we acquiesce to living with too lightly.

Ana Maria Dima is a Romanian working in the field of international development. Follow her on Twitter at @AnaMariaDima.


  • architengi

    PSD (Social Democratic Party) which has the most corrupt politicians wants to victimize all the people because they gave a gift to a doctor, or to a nurse, for better attention in health care. This is blaming all the people, just to let the PSD politicians to hide themselves when they get bribes of millions of euros.
    The high-level corruption destroys Romania.
    The high-level corruption is: abuse of power, million dollar bribes, conflict of interest, money laundering.
    How can a gift gave to a doctor or nurse destroy a country? It doesn’t have any effect on lack of highways, lack of good infrastructure, lack of schools, hospitals, lack of current water and lack of sewerage on the villages in the countryside?
    High-level political corruption determines all the lack of infrastructure, lack of good medical services and finally lack of civilized life.

    • Ana Maria Dima

      Thanks for your comment. High-level corruption is definitely part of the problem and probably the biggest part, but many people think that having to ‘give something extra’ is not quite right and that it shouldn’t be happening. It is a bit more nuanced and I was trying to get that message across in my piece.

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