Romania Shows of solidarity inspire protest-riven country

The government's attempt to weaken anti-corruption laws compelled thousands of citizens to come out in protest.

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Romanians have been protesting the government's attempt to roll back anti-corruption laws play

Romanians have been protesting the government's attempt to roll back anti-corruption laws

(AFP)
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Until this month, Horia Georgescu had never joined a protest in his life.

But the Romanian government's attempt to weaken anti-corruption laws compelled Georgescu, the owner of a printing business, to join thousands of others in demonstrations that have rocked the country.

Many of the banners brandished in Bucharest over the past week were printed without charge in Georgescu's small workshop, a short drive north of the capital.

"It happened in a very spontaneous manner. I saw various online initiatives involved in the protests and realised I had something to offer, not so much in a material but symbolic way," the 33-year-old told AFP.

Georgescu has created dozens of posters for demonstrators, using "very inventive slogans" they sent to him via email.

But he also made one for himself -- a 30-metre-long (100-foot) sign reading "You've won, you have united us", which he unfurled in front of the main government offices in Bucharest on Sunday.

That day, half a million people marched in cities and towns across the country, in the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989.

They were venting their anger over an emergency decree that came into force January 31, which critics say would have protected corrupt officials and politicians from prosecution.

Although the decree was scrapped late Sunday, the marches have continued, with some protesters vowing not to stop until the government steps down.

"I've never felt the urge to take to the streets before... but this time things have gone too far," Georgescu said.

'A key shift'

Georgescu isn't the only business owner to freely offer his services.

Pizza restaurants in Bucharest have been handing out snacks to protesters, while hostels are providing rooms for those pouring into the capital to join the marches.

A printing house has been offering free banner creation to the demonstrators in Bucharest play

A printing house has been offering free banner creation to the demonstrators in Bucharest

(AFP)

Kindergarten owner Adina Horga is offering complimentary childcare so parents can partake in the evening protests.

"If the transformation doesn't start in the education system, we won't see any changes in the country, neither now nor in five or 10 years," she told AFP.

The protests have sparked an unprecedented mobilisation of small business owners, according to Vintila Mihailescu, a leading anthropologist and political analyst.

"This has never existed before. It's an important new show of solidarity," he told AFP.

"There was a key shift from people passively posting comments on Facebook to actually taking to the streets, after those in power displayed an arrogant contempt" for citizens, he said.

The unrest also illustrates the growing power of civil society in Romania, Mihailescu said.

Back in 2013, lawmakers were forced to reject a bill that would have cleared the way for a huge gold mine in Transylvania, after tens of thousands of Romanians marched every weekend for several months.

And in 2015, mass protests forced the resignation of the left-wing government after a deadly disco fire in Bucharest, which killed 64 people.

The tragedy was attributed to corrupt officials who allowed the club's owners to ignore safety regulations.

Film director Mihai Grecea, who was badly injured in the blaze, has joined the latest demonstrations.

"People have finally understood their rights and that they were lied to for a long time," he said.

Society at risk

The sentiment is shared by Calin Goia, a musician whose band Voltaj represented Romania at the 2015 Eurovision song contest.

Goia recently penned a protest song which has gone viral, becoming one of the unofficial hymns of the marches.

"We've had similar moments in 1990 but at the time we weren't used to a democratic system. The internet wasn't there to unite us and help us thwart political manipulations," he said.

But despite the show of unity on the ground, experts say the protests also reveal a broader division in Romanian society, between the more youthful urban protesters and the PSD's backers among rural, poorer populations.

"A society whose members no longer communicate risks collapse," said Mihailescu, adding that the rifts had become more pronounced in recent years.

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has echoed this worry, saying his country was "cut in two pieces, maybe even more".

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