Diaspora at Home: How Romanians in Europe continue to forge their country's path.
Image: A protest in Romania, via Wallpaperflare

Most Romanians living abroad have left home in search of opportunities, but divisions in the country run deep. There is profound mistrust in Romania’s political system.

Romania’s diaspora is the second largest in Europe, with more than four million Romanians settled outside the country’s borders. Some have left in search of a better life – some have left because they had no choice, others have left to pursue studies abroad. Most of them will blame ‘the system’. The system won’t pay them enough: the system won’t support single parents. Millions of pupils and students have come to blame it for being too communist, and too under-developed to suit their ambitions.

21-year-old Andreea Antohi has known she would leave Romania ever since she was a child. Now, she lives in the Netherlands. In an interview for The Meridian, Andreea said: “I never felt like I was a part of the environment in which I grew up”. She blames deep-rooted corruption for all the faults in Romania’s political system, and for a poorly-handled “imbalance between social classes”. She thinks that change is possible, and that Romania’s diaspora is just as entitled to partake in it as those who are still at home. “Even if we don’t realise the importance of voting and prefer to put the responsibility on other people’s shoulders, our stamp on that piece of paper can change many things.”

Many other Romanians living abroad are just as involved and, for decades, Romania’s diaspora has been a loud voice for change. Recent elections have seen high voter turnouts and the overwhelming support from diaspora to electoral candidates with agendas promising achievable results for the country’s future.

The last presidential election in November last year proved the active involvement of Romanians abroad in politics, with a record voter turnout of almost 950,000 people. Many others did not even get to vote. After spending hours in long queues, Romanians living outside borders once again showed their disapproval of the Social-Democrats. National-Liberal President Klaus Iohannis won 63.17% of the nine million votes from Romanians who voted at home, while the diaspora showed a political affiliation of 92.19% towards the President. The Opposition’s candidate, ex-Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă, only received 7.81% of the diaspora’s votes. President Iohannis has been said “to embody in the East the European canon of values” and is to be awarded the Charlemagne prize for his political presence and morale.

It has been 29 years since the Revolution that ended the Communist Era in Romania, and the left-wing PSD (Partidul Social Democrat, or Social Democratic Party) has ruled the country executively for 22 years, either directly or through other people of authority. The Social-Democrats are known for their history of corruption, culminating in Emergency Ordinance 13, an Act approved overnight in January 2017 by the left-wing Grindeanu Government.

The Act provoked public outrage and violent protests in the months to follow. It sought to partially decriminalise certain actions involving abuse of power and corruption, leading to a hindrance of the courts’ power to hold to account top Social-Democrat politicians who were being investigated at the time.

This was a key moment that offered the Romanian diaspora an opportunity to express their shared frustration at how the country’s corrupt administration. Centre-right President Iohannis, who was serving his first term in office at the time, sided with the people and turned to criticise the Government on their inexplicable actions.

The most internationally discussed consequence of the Emergency Ordinance 13 was the Diaspora at Home protest of 10th August 2018 in Bucharest. With more than 100,000 protesters in the Romanian capital and thousands more in smaller cities, the movement called for the Act to be revoked and corrupt politicians to be brought to justice.

In an interview for Digi24, 54-year-old Gabriela, who had been working as a carer in Italy for ten years, declared as she was joining the protest: “If I saw that through honest work one can’t survive in their own country, I crossed my heart and left. There are millions like me”.

Diaspora at Home was one of the most violent protests Romania has experienced since the fall of communism, and it has faced hostility and aggression from the police. The Gendarmerie attacked protesters with tear gas and water cannons, in spite of their overall peaceful attitude. Romanians came from all over the world to overturn the Government and reclaim their country, and were faced with violence from the authorities.

Remembering the brutality of the 10th August protest, Andreea Antohi said she sees it as “a dark story for our country, because this is the 21st century and expressing your thoughts should not be punished in such an aggressive way”. Following the Diaspora at Home event, Amnesty International released a report condemning the Gendarmerie’s actions and urging the judiciary to investigate the matter in an “impartial and independent manner”. In the months that followed, some members of the Gendarmerie were prosecuted, suspended or sacked while their leaders resigned. The Grindeanu Government did not survive a vote of confidence, a mere six months after having been appointed, and Emergency Ordinance 13 was revoked.

The Romanian diaspora remains active and interested in their country’s political affairs and, less than two years since they reunited in Bucharest’s Victory Place to protest for change, that change is starting to surface.