Belarus protest movement swing this year in full. So far it has resulted into the tricky abolition of the controversial "Decree on parasitism". We wondered what causes dissatisfaction with the authorities in other countries. And our first close-up – Romania and the protests in February 2017, that have brought 600 thousand people to the streets. The film director and activist Andrei Daskalesku – on obscurantism of the Romanian authorities and sens(less)ness of the protest movement.
Who we talk to: Andrei Daskalesku, 32 years – Romanian documentary filmmaker. After working with sound in the BBC World Service Romania and in the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch, he began making his own films. The first of them – ‘Constantine and Elena’ – won the First Appearance awards at IDFA and several other prizes elsewhere. This year at Berlinale we've watched his new movie ‘Planet Petrila’ – about the cooperation of artists and the public in order to preserve the historic mine in the town of Petrila. In February 2017 Andrei has been one of the few who filmed the protests outside Bucharest.
Why to protest? This February, two weeks in a row Romanians across the whole country have been protesting against the new law, secretly adopted by Social Democratic Party, which has just come to power. This law shall be exempt from liability for acts of corruption at the sum of bribes less than 47 thousand dollars. 600,000 people rushed to the streets to express their revolt. Currently, the law is canceled.
This protest is claimed the largest in the history of independent Romania (since 1989). What has made a lot of people to get to the streets?
– For me, it was a surprise that there were so many of us. This is the first big protest after the revolution in 1989 and Mineriads in 1999. We’ve had protests in 2012 when we managed to overturn the government, made the prime minister resign; and the protests in 2013 connected with Roșia Montană, the very picturesque area in Romania. The Canadian company wanted to dig for gold there and basically destroy the mountain. This protest has also been successful, the digging was canceled. And I think this was the moment when protesting has eventually become cool.
During the latest presidential elections in 2014, we protested against the prime minister. He was from social democrats and was one of two runner-ups for the presidency. On the election day, we had news that people abroad are not allowed to vote. They've had very few voting stations. People were queuing for all the day and they’ve started closing the stations before everyone has gotten to vote. This was a clear strategy not to let those who wouldn’t ever support social democrats vote in this elections. The spontaneous protest took place on the election day. And by some miracle social democrats didn’t win.
The worst episode was in 2015 when we’ve had the club fire. 3 of my friends have died there. And several more people whom I know have survived in the fire. I’ve been there myself many times. It was a great place for people of my generation, people from creative industries. This club had no permission to exist and didn’t fit fireproof requirements. Our authorities were trying to assure us that no help is needed, that our hospitals will cope with it, our emergency services will take that under control. But in the end, there were around 20 people who’ve died in the fire. And from complications of injuries in hospitals, 63 more have died. Even those who managed to get out of the fire on their own feet have later died in the hospitals. Afterward, journalists have discovered that disinfectants in hospitals across the whole country were fake, they are 20 times less concentrated than it’s stated on the label. People were dying because of corruption. This had made people really angry and they’ve forced the government to resign.
So for one year, since December 2015 to December 2016, we had technocrat government. Those people are professionals in their fields, but not politicians. It was a really good year, though started with a tragedy. Then we had new elections. To my generation’s surprise we had very low turnout – around 40%. This has resulted in the victory of social democrats. They are supported by the socially disadvantaged class of people, those who have pensions and other help from the government. So social democrats have raised their pensions by 5 euro or so and they went to support them.
So they are back in power now. They have canceled reforms in health, education, culture that technocrats have started. And couple of weeks later we have received the news that they plan to pass this law that decriminalizes corruption if the sum of a bribe is less than $47 000. When we saw it on the news we thought that the publishers have gone mad.
It hasn’t been officially stated, it was not on the agenda of the meeting. And then all of a sudden we’ve got the news that the law had been passed at some late meeting at 9 p.m. The news started at 10 p.m., for half an hour they were talking about budget and stuff, and in the end, they added ‘And by the way, we’ve passed this law’.
We saw how shocked everyone was. Even the loyal press that usually asks some dumb questions to stop the really smart ones from asking was also trying to figure out the thing. And the speaker, the minister of justice kept answering ‘Next question, please’.
Half an hour later, despite all the logistics and late time, people were out in the streets.
Knowing such a history of the protest movement, it is surprising to hear that you were not expecting people in Romania to be that politically active.
I think we are politically active, but we are in a small number. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap in views between generations. My generation receives information from Facebook, we know which source we should trust, the older generations receive the information from the TV. And there are two TV stations closely aligned with the government, so they say what the government wants them to say. During the first night of protests, they were saying that the protest is sponsored by Soros. My parents would call me and ask why I participate in the fake protest.
Normally we are active and organize some events, but as it usually happens, there are 10 000 people on Facebook event saying that they are going and only 2000 of them show up at the square. This time it was completely different. It was spontaneous; there was no Facebook event or any preparation. People just felt that it has been too much. This was the purest protest that I have seen. Yeah, we like to talk about politics to think of ourselves as some keen on the matter guys. But this time it was not just us, there were all sorts of people: those who voted for social democrats and those who didn’t vote at all. People were outraged. They have 4 years in the rule ahead, and within the first weeks, they are releasing all the thieves from their party. It’s not gonna end up well.
So was it a reaction to this exact law? Or maybe, the people saw that the party acts to the detriment of the country, and this was an accumulated anger?
I don’t think this anger has been accumulated. This government has been in power for 3 weeks at that moment. And not many people follow the news, lots of young people weren’t even voting. So I think people haven’t quite understood what are those social democrats are up to. But this law has been like a bomb for the society. We couldn’t imagine anything like that. It felt like we have to go to rescue our country.
How has the activism started for you personally?
For me, the protests have started in 2013. Back then the prime minister Victor Ponta was talking about the protest with the words similar to those which Iliescu has used in 1999. There’s a word 'Golani' in Romanian. It means some member of a gang who is violent and attacks for no reason. This is an absolute contrast to the real people standing there. I was there and I saw those nice people who were pictured as retards. And I felt that I have to shoot pictures there to show the other perspective on movement.
I also see my pictures as a way of contributing to the protest. I post photos on my Facebook, I grant permission to use them for any publications about the protests without any money. The protests in Bucharest were very well covered, but there was no such thing in Cluj where I’ve been participating in protests. I was streaming on Facebook to show what actually happens there. People have seen it and started asking me where to go if they want to join. On the first night of protests, we have become the country with the widest Facebook-streaming in the world.
Will your footage from protests eventually become the next documentary film?
Filming is my form of activism. I make this in the heat of the moment. It helps to attract more and more people to the protest. But I have never thought of it as cinema. I just use what I know and do best for the common good. But is the same as just standing there with the sign.
It might be the case that with my film Planeta Petrila I’ve actually contributed to saving the mine in Petrila. But this time I was the same participant as anyone else. I’m just bringing it to the spotlight.
Do you think that the protests were successful? Have people achieved the goal?
Technically – yes. The law is now banned. But the situation is tricky. This law has passed and received its number (13). It was banned by the other law, numbered 14. The latter was written inaccurately. On purpose, I suppose. So if anyone complains that the law #14 is inaccurate, it can be easily canceled and then the 13th is in the power again. So it’s still a possibility to process this law. Those guys in the cabinet aren’t stupid and they’ve just learned that they should be careful with us.
After the club fire, there have been just 30,000 protesters and the government resigned. Now there are 600,000 and no one is resigning. Protests have stopped for now. It’s been 14 days of them already; people were standing there even in a snowstorm. They simply need to rest now and get back to their jobs. But I think if the government makes something wrong just once soon, people will hit the streets again.
Have you ever felt that it’s useless then?
It is useless in a way. The minister of justice (the one who kept saying ‘Next question, please’) has resigned, but this is just a sacrifice to calm down the crowds. Liviu Dragnea, the head of social democrats, keeps saying that there is a misunderstanding and the law is harmless. 600,000 people were in the streets and he keeps saying that the government is right. There haven’t been so many people out there since the revolution, and he’s still saying that we are getting paid for the protests. It seems useless at that point.
But the fact that so many people joined the protest brings me hope. A lot of people were helping the protesters. They were bringing tea, coffee shops were offering free drinks for people out there. A lot of people were coming from other cities to Bucharest on weekends. The have created Google Doc where they were offering free couches or the lift to Bucharest for those who were coming from other places. One of our actions was gifting flowers to gendarmerie (riot police). My friend who works in the flower shop called me and offered flowers for protest.
This was a spectacular mobilization of our people. We haven’t ever seen anything like that. I hope that all of those people will show up at the next elections.
Is there any chance that the things will turn out to be the way you want them to be?
If someone makes a list of people who are now in the government you’ll hardly find anyone without problems with the law. We even joke that having troubles with the law is a basic requirement for entering social democrats’ party. But we can’t question their authority as they were legally chosen.
But it seems to me that not the whole party is a wreck. Liviu Dragnea, the head of the party, is the main evil there. We’ve already heard some voices saying that this is a wrong way for the party. We hope that there will be more of them. And they realize that they not only hurting the party (they’ve lost their ratings) but also the whole country.
Will it require another scandal?
I hope this one can happen within the party so we don’t have to hit the streets once again. It’s still pretty cold there.
Well, the spring is coming.
Yeah, Romanian spring.
Let’s hope this one is not going to happen. This is really surprising though that having seemingly close situations with activism in our countries, the outcomes a dramatically different.
You know, I’ve been in Minsk actually. I’ve been to your Minsk International Film Festival and have had really great volunteers who showed and told me a lot about the country. And I was surprised how free and open-minded young people are in Belarus. You have all the chances to change something.
I was skeptical about my own country. This year with technocrats at the rule was great and thought that after that people would never vote for social democrats. But this is what has happened. And now we’ve had all those people in the streets. So anything is possible.