They came wearing puffa jackets and bobble hats; snuggled up in slings, sitting in pushchairs or clasping their parents’ hands; carrying small handwritten placards, balloons and coloured chalks to draw on the pavement.
The children’s protest on the afternoon of February 4 was organised amid daily mass demonstrations over moves by the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) to undermine the country’s anti-corruption drive. The emergency ordinance adopted on January 31 will see thousands of officials guilty of graft, including top government figures, escape justice. Later in the day Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said he would revoke the ordinance, but protesters – who say they do not trust the government – have pledged to continue.
The wave of protests that erupted across Romania in the last two weeks have become family affairs, swelling in size from a few thousand at the first one on January 18 to tens of thousands, and finally hundreds of thousands. It’s not uncommon to see small children perched on their parents shoulders at the protests or pushchairs draped with the Romanian flag.
But the protest organised outside the main government offices on the afternoon of February, drawing around 7,000 people according to local media, was specifically for children. Like the other protests, it was a grassroots event publicised on Facebook. Unlike the earlier protests, however, it was preceded by a lengthy online discussion about to schedule the event around nap time, and ensure kids could be handed over to their grandparents in time for their parents to return to the square for the evening protest.
One protester, carrying his four-year-old son, told bne IntelliNews that he had been out every evening since January 31, and he believes that involving children is very important. “He will remember this day when he is older,” he said. “He has already learnt a new word – protest.”
Although he is unsure whether the action will make a difference, he says the government “didn’t expect this level of resistance, with hundreds of thousands of people; the lid is on the flames inside the stove – just”.
He also believes that bringing children is further proof that the demonstrators have peaceful intentions. Despite the hundreds of thousands of people converging on the square nightly, there has only been one violent incident, on the evening of February 1, and both protesters and President Klaus Iohannis claim this was provoked by a group indirectly linked to the ruling Social Democratic Party (bne has covered other apparent attempts by the government, including wheeling out foreign ‘useful idiots’, to undermine critics of its moves).
A young couple nearby say their daughter, at just two and a half, probably won’t remember this day, but she will know later that it’s important to stand up for what is right. “The government pretend they are doing this for the good of the people, but in fact they are doing it for themselves,” says her father.
Although Prime Minister Grindeanu bowed to public pressure and said late on February 4 that he would withdraw the ordinance, this does not rule out the government submitting it to parliament, where the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and its ally the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) have a majority.
If the ordinance is adopted, anyone guilty of abuse of office that results in damages of less than RON200,000 (€44,100) would go free. This would seriously undermine Romania’s highly active National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), which is currently working on 2,151 cases of abuse of office.
The DNA, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and external observers such as the EU have all warned of the dangers of such a dramatic backsliding in the fight against corruption. Even the hugely influential Romanian church – around 85% of Romanians are Orthodox Christians – has thrown its weight behind the anti-corruption fight.
Despite the seriousness of the issue, there was a carnival atmosphere on Victory Square as children play fought with balloons in the colours of the Romanian flag – red, yellow and blue. Horns tooted to the tune of the chant “PSD – the red plague”, which is heard at every rally. A small child held a placard saying “DRAGNEA = DRACULA” – a reference to PSD leader Liviu Dragea, who will be one of the first beneficiaries of the ordinance if it comes into effect, since he is currently on trial for abuse of office.
Behind him was a grandmother with her own sign saying, “In 1989 we protested for liberty; now we are protesting for justice.” This added to the feeling that Romania is on the verge of a historic moment as protester numbers reach levels not seen since the fall of communism.
Mass protests are not rare in Romania; tens of thousands took to the streets during the 2014 presidential election, and again after the Club Colectiv nightclub fire in 2015. Both times were mass outpourings of public anger against Dragnea’s colleagues in the PSD.
However, there has been nothing seen on the scale of this year, when numbers reached an estimated 250,000 across the country on February 1, and 180,000 took to the streets in Bucharest alone on the evening of February 4. There is a widespread belief among the protesters that this is a pivotal time for Romania which will determine whether the country will go back to the bad old days of unchecked corruption or whether it will continue to develop as a modern European nation.
That’s why these parents want their children to take part in this critical moment of history.