How Romanian People Power Took On Mining and Corruption

How Romanian People Power Took On Mining and Corruption

One doesn’t usually think of the southeast corner of Europe as a hotbed of citizen dissent and mobilization. Yet people power in the region has been on the rise in recent years, producing some impressive outcomes. This has been most notable in Romania, where grassroots action has challenged corrupt political-economic interests, undone a toxic gold mining project, and put teeth back into the country’s democracy.

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This was clearly evident about a year ago, on October 30, 2015, when thousands of Romanians took to the streets of their capital to protest a horrific fire in a Bucharest nightclub that took 64 lives. The organizers of a rock concert had set off fireworks inside, causing a catastrophic blaze. The club’s owners were arrested and charged with building code violations. Some of the hospitalized victims contracted life-threatening bacterial infections after a Romanian pharmaceutical company supplied over 350 hospitals with heavily diluted antiseptics at inflated prices.

The protesters coined a term for the tragedy: corupția ucide, or “corruption kills.” As it turned out, the slogan was an effective one — the crowds swelled to 25,000 people. Victor Ponta, the country’s prime minister, resigned soon afterwards.

There’s a good reason the protesters’ anti-corruption message worked. Corruption in Romania is everywhere — it is part and parcel of how the government and economy are run. Institutions are weak. Reformers within the government face intimidation as well as bureaucratic, political, and financial obstacles. And when corruption is challenged, it’s often no more than a cynical ploy to discredit someone’s political opponents. So it’s not surprising that most Romanians are suspicious of the social and economic elite: They feel that the state, the political parties, the corporations, and the media all work only for their own benefit.

These sentiments breed apathy. All too often, graft is considered simply the cost of doing business and stimulates no civic mobilization. Dozens of politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities either have pending cases before the courts or are facing prosecution by the National Anti-Corruption Directorate. As a result, venal politicians are repeatedly voted back into office. As one running joke would have it, an entire government could be formed in prison.

It took the fallout from the 2008 global economic crisis to stir Romanians to action. Against a background of harsh austerity, the government’s usual cronyism and graft became too much to bear. Corruption was hitting home. Public fury catalyzed around the resignation of a respected deputy health minister, Raed Arafat, who had opposed the government’s plans to partially privatize the health care system. On January 12, 2012, demonstrations against privatization, corruption and government incompetence took place in the country’s major cities, occasionally resulting in violent confrontations between police and demonstrators. Five days later, Arafat was reinstated, the privatization plans were shelved, and the government resigned. Many people pinned their hopes for reform on the Social Democratic opposition party, which won both local and national elections that year and propelled Victor Ponta, a former prosecutor, to the prime minister’s office. The party’s success was based on its promises to revoke some of the austerity measures introduced by the previous government, such as a 25 percent wage cut for public servants.

But it soon became clear that little had changed. During his campaign, Prime Minister Ponta had repeatedly criticized a controversial gold mining project near the quaint mountain village of Rosia Montana, vowing to subject it to a fully transparent and open reevaluation if elected. But in 2013, within eight months of taking office, he reneged on this key election promise.

What happened next shows what’s possible when a small group of citizens overcomes apathy and marginalization, manages to grow its support, and joins forces with allies to grow into a nationwide movement that challenges some of a country’s most powerful entrenched interests.

The village of Rosia Montana lies in the picturesque Apuseni Mountains of Transylvania. But the area is known not only for its beauty. It also has a wealth of mineral deposits, with a history of gold mining that dates all the way back to Roman times. In 1995, Gabriel Resources, a company based in Canada, stepped into the picture with plans to build the biggest open-pit gold mine in Europe using cyanide extraction. It would be an ambitious and irreversible undertaking, involving the destruction of four mountain peaks and three villages, including Rosia Montana. It also brought environmental concerns: While the mine was supposed to operate for 16 years, a cyanide-waste lake created in its wake would remain for generations to come.

The ownership of the project is convoluted, amply illustrating the opaque relationships between government and private sector interests that are so common in Romania. By 1997 Gabriel Resources joined with a state-owned Romanian company, now called Minvest, to form Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), in which the former held an 80 percent stake. The stated aim of the new company was to explore and exploit gold reserves in an area of 4.6 square miles. But critics alleged that the deal did not meet existing public disclosure requirements and that the contract that created the joint venture had actually been signed a day before the state-owned company made known that it was seeking an international partner. In other words, the deal was suspicious from the beginning. Many assumed that members of the administrative and political elite were set to profit handsomely from the project.

In 1999, RMGC secured the coveted mining license, hidden from public view thanks to its categorization as classified information. Over the course of the next few months, the exploration area almost quadrupled in size to 16 square miles and silver was added to the deal. There was no evidence of the state receiving any compensation for the license, nor was there an official bidding process before the contract was awarded. The whole affair revealed suspiciously smooth — and largely concealed — collaboration between the state administration (such as the National Agency for Natural Resource, the Ministry of Environment and government officials), and company representatives.

Furthermore, Gabriel Resources was a questionable partner from the beginning. The company was originally founded by Frank Timis, a Romanian-Australian businessman with a criminal record of heroin possession. More to the point, Timis was nicknamed the “Emperor of West African Resources” for his controversial mining operations in Africa. His company, African Minerals Limited, has faced lawsuits by small investors and Sierra Leonean villagers displaced from their land by a major iron ore project, as well as scrutiny from Human Rights Watch.

The Romanian mining plan entailed the destruction of entire villages, agriculture, and ancient Roman heritage sites and artifacts. Moreover, some locals in and near Rosia Montana understood that the highly toxic method of cyanide-based gold mining it entailed could have long-term ecological effects on the region, damaging the beautiful landscape and poisoning the soil. This would destroy the small-scale farming upon which many local families depend. In 2000, a cyanide spill resulting from a similar gold extraction project in the town of Baia Mare, which some called the worst environmental disaster since the Chernobyl nuclear leak, served as a stark reminder of the dangers of such mining. The catastrophe wreaked havoc on the ecosystem along the Tisza River in Hungary, killing 1,400 tons of fish, contaminating drinking water, and creating health hazards for wildlife and fishermen.

The local people confronted a dilemma. The project would create several hundred jobs, a considerable attraction in an impoverished region where there were few other alternatives. Yet the costs would include the destruction of several communities. Some residents sold their property to RMGC, either willingly or under duress, and moved to modern, well-equipped new settlements provided by the company about 50 miles away. Enormous pressure was put on those who were unwilling to leave — but over 100 citizens stayed put. As a result, the community began to fracture and families fell apart over their differences.

The local political and administrative elite complied fully with RMGC’s demands in a blatant display of impropriety. The authorities produced two “Urbanism Plans” — financed by the company — that essentially turned the rural area into an industrial zone and made any alternative economic strategies virtually impossible. In 2002, the elected local council approved the plans despite serious conflicts of interest (some of the councilors, or their family members, were on RMGC’s payroll). Several NGOs launched a legal challenge over the decision. Ten years later, a court ruling annulled the plan on these same grounds. During this decade, in preparation for the actual gold exploitation, RMGC carried out a variety of feasibility, technical, and archeological studies, produced environmental reports and impact assessments, held stakeholder consultations, and built the resettlement neighborhood.

In the meantime, by 2000, a group of villagers from Rosia Montana and Bucium, also slated for destruction, came together in opposition to RMGC. They created Alburnus Maior, a community-based organization named after the ancient Roman settlement upon which Rosia Montana stands. In 2002, the group launched a campaign called “Save Rosia Montana,” aimed at stopping the entire mining project. The initiative soon drew support from beyond the region, from university students in Cluj and Bucharest to the Romanian Academy, Bucharest’s Academy for Economic Studies, and religious institutions such as the Orthodox Church, which was worried about the destruction of churches and cemeteries. Alburnus Maior also linked up with a variety of environmental NGOs.

The group’s campaign included publicity efforts to inform the general public about the effects of the project, training programs to help local residents develop alternative incomes such as tourism, and cultural events in order to raise awareness and draw people from beyond the region. For example, in 2004 the group launched FanFest, a one-day festival with music, theatre, and fun activities that attracted around 4,000 people. The next year, the festival grew into a three-day affair, drawing nearly 8,000 visitors. They came not only for entertainment but also to show solidarity with the people of Rosia Montana.

In 2011, Alburnus Maior started the “Adopt a House” project to offset the impact of population loss, as the decay of abandoned buildings following the villagers’ resettlement had become painfully visible. Members also began preserving and restoring cultural monuments, such as an 18th-century Greek-Catholic church. The “Save Rosia Montana” campaign challenged administrative and political decisions in court to disrupt RMGC’s plans, increase transparency, and pressure officials to follow the rules. They fought a successful legal battle to make Bucium’s exploration license, which had previously been kept under wraps, accessible to the public. The group attempted to provide alternative sources of information to counter the RMGC’s influence over the local media. Even so, the campaign had not yet entered the national consciousness.

The turning point came on August 27, 2013, when Prime Minister Ponta’s administration submitted a draft law to Parliament that would give RMGC the power to expropriate property for the mining project, including the houses and buildings of the villages slated for destruction. It was never made clear whether the state, the company, or both would be in charge of compensating the owners, who could be forcibly removed. The bill required authorities to provide RMGC with all the necessary permits regardless of other legal provisions. Its passage into law would pave the way for the exploration and exploitation to begin.

Ponta’s about-face from the promises he had made during his election campaign to scrutinize the project was too much even for the disillusioned Romanian public. Given the long history of state expropriation during the communist era, the issue touched a raw nerve among the older generation, while many young people were concerned about the apparently unchecked power being granted to private firms.

The next day, four seasoned activists chained themselves to a fence surrounding a government building in Bucharest to voice their opposition to the proposed law. A social media campaign joined in, and people took to the streets with banners, drums, loudspeakers, and tents. Soon protesters were occupying Constitution Square in front of the Parliament, and on September 8, a huge crowd rallied in the square, chanting slogans such as “corporations don’t make the laws” and “the revolution begins with Rosia Montana.”

Various loosely connected organizers developed an innovative tactic. They decided to hold weekly marches throughout Bucharest, not only in the center but also in far-flung neighborhoods. Since local media companies had lucrative advertising contracts with RMGC, there was little coverage of the protests. Activists decided that it was essential to circumvent them by reaching out directly to the city’s residents. Once it became impossible to ignore the emerging movement, mainly referred to as “Save Rosia Montana,” the media tried to discredit it by presenting the protesters as unemployed vagrants, drug addicts, or stooges of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, a frequent focus of conspiracy theories in Romania. His Open Society Foundation was active in Romania at the time and sided with the cause.

The protesters’ main demands were for parliament to reject the RMGC bill, to ban cyanide mining and shale gas extraction, and to add Rosia Montana to the country’s list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. They called for the resignation of top officials, including the ministers of culture and of the environment, as well as of Prime Minister Ponta himself.

What began as a local campaign launched by Alburnus Maior in 2002 had morphed into a national social movement. Over the course of three months, thousands took part in marches and protests in Bucharest and other cities and towns across the country. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s anti-austerity Indignados movement, people created working groups, drafted policy proposals, and set up participatory democracy forums. Solidarity demonstrations, some involving the Romanian diaspora, were organized in the United States, Germany, Greece, France, and England. International figures, from Prince Charles to Woody Harrelson, also expressed support.

Unity is critical for mobilization. In this case, the movement pulled together a wide range of groups with diverse motivations and ideologies, from those concerned about the environment, historical preservation, and cultural heritage to nationalists, anti-capitalists, and progressives. Others were just fed up with the country’s political and economic elites. Moreover, the overarching objective — to stop the mining project — was abundantly clear. The ruling establishment’s plans epitomized its disregard for citizens and their concerns. Political elites stood united behind the mining project, and as a result there was no visible space to voice opposition except in the civic realm. Finally, the Save Rosia Montana movement transcended party politics and ideology. Claudiu Craciun, a Romanian academic and activist, puts it this way: “Most people who took to the streets used to see themselves as apolitical or anti-political because they didn’t want to be associated with political parties, either in opposition or in power.”

The Save Rosia Montana campaign ultimately became the biggest movement of its kind in Romania’s post-communist history. The political establishment was overwhelmed by citizens’ sustained collective outrage. On June 14, 2014 the Parliament bowed to public pressure and rejected the RMGC bill. In 2016, Minister of Culture Vlad Alexandrescu vowed to put an end to cyanide gold mining once and for all. He declared Rosia Montana to be a historic site of national interest and put it on the UNESCO Heritage Site list, thereby prohibiting all mining in the area. He also urged the National Anti-Corruption Directorate to investigate the entire RMCG deal. (To date, however, this has not happened.)

The mining company is not giving up easily. In July 2015, Gabriel Resources submitted a claim of damages against Romania to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes of the World Bank Group. The mistrust of those in power in Romania runs so deep that many Romanians fear that a new attempt is in the works to reactivate the project.

What can we conclude from Romania’s people power awakening? First, when democratic institutions are compromised and representative democracy itself fails to deliver, citizens do have recourse. Second, taking action is hard and often involves personal and financial sacrifices. Thus, the potential for bottom-up mobilization increases when corruption affects daily life, or when elites are so venal that public indignation becomes widespread.

Finally, we learn that a political establishment as compromised as Romania’s cannot easily fix itself. The Rosia Montana mining project demonstrated how vested interests (including the media, local officials, and even national politicians) who benefit from graft and abuse will try to circumvent rule of law and democratic processes. Therein lies the strategic contribution of extra-institutional pressure. Grassroots mobilization can disrupt the corrupt status quo, and more generally, support those on the inside who are working for change or those who seek to move into the government in the hopes of transforming it.

Elections for a new government are scheduled for December 11. Craciun, the academic and activist, is skeptical that Romania is headed for systemic change. “The government’s strategy is to accommodate the protesters,” he says. “They sacrifice a person or change a law. We do have some victories but they don’t change the way the system operates.” On the other hand, people power is challenging Romania’s ingrained system of corruption. An active new civil society is demanding accountability from elites who have often abused their status and authority for personal or political gain. These civic initiatives gain legitimacy — a necessary component for influence — in part through voluntary grassroots participation. That ordinary people could stop this massively lucrative mining project, so long considered a fait accompli, counts as a monumental victory.

A number of independent candidates and a new political party, the Save Bucharest Union, ran in this June’s local elections. Their moderate success surprised the political establishment. They have a different style of politics than is usual in Romania — one based on responsiveness, integrity, and community rather than the pursuit of personal gain. These emerging forces will run in this year’s parliamentary elections. Interestingly, these fresh faces have incorporated a people power mindset that draws its strength from active citizenship, collective responsibility, and a shared cause. How they fare remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Intolerance of corruption and impunity is growing in Romania.

Photo credit: ANDREI PUNGOVSCHI/AFP/Getty Images