As I reporter I have attended many protests in the Romanian capital, but I haven’t witnessed much violence or ever felt threatened in any way. That changed this weekend.
In the past one and a half years, I have been both to anti-governmental protests and rallies organised in support of the government and the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), but the atmosphere, although different in many ways, was mainly peaceful.
However, on August 10, I was shocked by the way violence escalated and the brutality of both riot police and a few of the protesters.Tension rose gradually during the day as the gendarmerie intensified spraying and randomly firing gas into the protesters. Aimed at dispersing the crowd, the action only raised the determination of the people gathered in Victory Square to continue their protest.
Every shot of gas into the crowd was immediately booed and followed by a strong and determined “We are not leaving.” The irritating smell was felt in the entire square, populated by an estimated 100,000 people, including children.
Tear gas has been used before at protests, when the crowd tried to break the chain made by the gendarmes, but at a much lower extent and usually directed to certain people. I have not seen water cannons being used at any other protest I attended.
Compared to last year’s protests, the gendarmerie’s tactics on August 10 were dramatic and new. Back in February last year, they were offered flowers by the protesters as a sign of their peaceful intentions. This time round the gendarmes have been widely accused of abuse and brutally beating peaceful protesters and even media representatives.
Footage showing gendarmes hitting women, people with their hands up, or taking personal revenge on protesters are emerging on social media channels and raise a lot of question marks over how this state institution functions and how reliable it can be when it comes to serving public interest.
Meanwhile, the military prosecutors have started a criminal case related to violent incidents and the way the gendarmerie acted during the protest on August 10 when more than 450 people needed medical care.
At the same time, the unusual violence of some protesters has lead to speculation, including that the more violent members of the crowd were supporters of some football teams or that they were provocateurs used to justify the violent intervention of riot police and to discredit the protest. Others claim that anger was the result of repeated gas spraying.
The truth is, hopefully, to be revealed by the investigation. However, the image of the government and the police force has suffered a lot following the incidents, with some accusing police of serving the interests of PSD. Romania’s image has been badly tarnished, which is to take over the presidency of the Council of Europe as of next year.
Many have compared the incidents with those in 1990 when miners, summoned by the then president Ion Iliescu, invaded Bucharest to put an end to anti-governmental protests in the Romanian capital. The miners devastated the headquarters of opposition political parties and attacked citizens of Bucharest. Last year, Romanian military prosecutors sent Iliescu and former Prime Minister Petre Roman to stand trial for their role in the brutal repression of street protests in June 1990.
This year, Romania will celebrate 100 years of existence and the protest, organised by the Romanian diaspora, had gained even more significance as it was bringing together Romanians from over the whole country, united by their desire to show disapproval of corruption in the government and support for the rule of law.
Whatever the reasons behind the violence on August 10, the events seem to have reignited the anti-governmental protest flame in Romania. Bucharest has become, again, the scene of mass rallies, after the number of protesters had fallen dramatically in the past year. Following the violent incidents on August 10, people returned on the streets the next two days, asking for the government’s resignation. The protesters looked ready to face any possible violence, wearing marks and scarves around their necks. However, no violent incidents were reported in the following two days.