How the complicity between state authorities and corporate interests led to the outbreak of a Romanian Autumn

The biggest protests in Romania in the last twenty years broke out on September 1st over government backing of a highly controversial corporate mining project in the heart of Transylvania. As thousands of people take to the streets in several major cities (notably in the capital, Bucharest, and the country’s second city, Cluj-Napoca), a final decision regarding the fate of this project is to be taken by the Parliament in the coming weeks.

Rosia Montana, a region of 16 villages founded by the Romans in the 2nd century AD, is considered to host the largest gold field in Europe. In 1999, the mining license was given, without any public bidding, to Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), which is 80% owned by the Toronto-listed company, Gabriel Resources, (founded by the controversial Romanian born Australian businessman Frank Timis, recently declared the richest Australian citizen living in London) and 19% by RAC Deva, a Romanian state-run company.

The mining project put forward by RMGC amounts to the cyanide-based extraction of 300 tons of gold and 1,600 tons of silver over a 16-year period. This would lead to the creation of about 3,600 jobs and a nearly $7.5 billion in profits, although the numbers are hotly disputed (many talk of only 600 jobs created). Basically, advocates of the project – including local residents, high-ranking politicians and several well-established journalists, some of them generously incentivized – claim that it represents Romania’s best chance to both gain any benefit from the mines at Rosia Montana and improve the lives of those living there.

The opponents of the project – among which are hundreds of locals, the Romanian Academy, the Romanian Cultural Institute, the three main churches in Romania (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Greek-Catholic), a government panel from Hungary, numerous domestic and international NGOs, as well as 83 Romanian professors of economy and several foreign archaeologists – criticize it on social, environmental, patrimonial, economic and legal grounds. They argue that the RMGC mining project would entail the displacement of over 2,000 people and the complete erasure of four mountains, five churches, four cemeteries and 2000-year old Roman sites. Also, the use of 40 tons of cyanide over a 16-year period would dramatically damage the area’s ecosystem, leaving behind a moon-like landscape to say the least. Moreover, the cyanide would be stored in a 300-hectare pond, but how could RMGC possibly guarantee that no cyanide spill would ever occur? Last but not least, critics point out, what would happen with those refusing to give up their homes and lands, at least not at the price unilaterally settled by RMGC? Would the state force them to leave mainly for the benefit of a private corporation? Indeed, why shouldn’t the state itself extract the gold by using classic mining methods?

Despite tens of millions of euros invested all these years in advertising, public relations, lobbying and arguably bribery, RMGC was not able to start mining because of its project’s noncompliance with either Romanian or European environmental laws. Every certificate granted by the government to RMGC was overruled, mostly as a result of legal actions initiated by environmental groups. Hence, the project repeatedly failed to get the green light from 1999 onwards; but only until the end of this August, when the social-liberal government coalition, the Social-Liberal Union (SLU), suddenly approved the RMGC project, sending it to Parliament in order to get the necessary vote (expected to be largely positive, given the distressingly strong majority that the SLU holds in both chambers of the Parliament). All this in spite of SLU winning the general elections in 2012 on an electoral platform that, among other things, explicitly promised to cancel this very mining project at Rosia Montana!

The government’s law proposal forwarded to the Parliament in support of the RMGC project contains several fairly outrageous points, of which two stand out: adapting the environmental laws in any way required so that they fit RMGC project’s shortcomings (rather than vice versa) and allowing RMGC – a private company – to expropriate people refusing to leave their lands. Along with the government’s blatant breach of its own electoral promises, these striking anti-constitutional provisions infuriated many who had previously been largely indifferent to the Rosia Montana case.

On Sunday, September 1st, people took the streets in what soon proved to be not only the culmination of the 10-year long “Save Rosia Montana!” campaign, but also the largest street protests in Romania in the past two decades – some call it “the Romanian Autumn”, placing it in the chain of revolts that has been sweeping the planet in recent years. For the last ten weeks, thousands of people have occupied the main square in Bucharest (University Square), Cluj-Napoca (Union Square) and other major cities, while their number increased to tens of thousands on every Sunday (20,000 only in Bucharest). The creatively witty (e.g. “If you wanna dig, come to the Bucharest subway”, “Win your gold at the Olympic Games”, “Romania is mined by a corrupt government”) and consistently peaceful nature of the protests not only attracted new people who had been reluctant to take part in anything of that sort, but also puzzled the RMGC-supporting authorities who were waiting for any sign of violence as an excuse for suppressing the protests.

In its general outlook, the movement tends to follow the “Occupy” pattern, with no formal leaders and most of the protesters consisting of middle-class students and professionals aged 20-40 (the idea of attracting the working class by approaching the trade unions has not been actually given any serious attention). The issues they tackle are not confined to the Rosia Montana case, but range from the corruption of the political elite to the harsh austerity measures imposed on ordinary people. Although present, an anti-capitalist agenda is less prevailing, given the ideologically eclectic composition of the protesters (similarly to the protests in Istanbul this summer): liberals, anarchists, far-right nationalists, greens, socialists or "apolitical" youngsters. Regardless of the differences between them, they are all united around the same cause: saving Rosia Montana and, more generally, the whole country from the dreadful coalition between a deeply rotten political system and big corporate unscrupulous interests.

However, the harmony is far from perfect: there have been intimidations and even one attack of a handful of far-right nationalists against a small group of anarchists. Most of those within the protest movement claimed that this incident is marginal and has to be rapidly forgotten for the sake of unity and good public image. But some voices on the Left saw it as a proof that the protests are gaining an increasingly nationalist outlook, for this incident came only a few days after some of the protesters started singing the national anthem and even sat down, rather ostentatiously, for a Christian-Orthodox prayer. It is claimed, quite righteously, that any cooperation with nationalists is inherently short-lived and will eventually turn into open conflict. In any case, there is no strategy so far for preventing and containing future conflicts between protesters, which somehow speaks of the lack of cohesion that tends to characterize the movement.

But despite the high diversity of protesters, mainstream media dubbed all of them, in a clearly derogatory manner, as “hipsters”. The underlying point would be that these middle-class young urban people are impertinently protesting over a very local issue that regards only the unemployed miners living there, who, of course, want the RMGC project to start. Some even claimed that the protesters are paid by foreign NGOs that wish to undermine Romania’s economic interests or by rival companies of RMGC who wish to put their hands on Rosia Montana. Actually, the negative attitude and, at best, indifference, of most of the mainstream media towards these protests was no surprise given the considerable amounts of advertising that RMGC has been buying in virtually all media outlets for the last ten years. The most critical were precisely those that have been gaining the most out of RMGC’s intense and costly advertising campaigns.

However, despite this type of corporate-funded media censorship, the protests became increasingly more visible and attracted new supporters with every week. Therefore, concerned with the electoral impact these large-scale protests might have (the European elections next spring are not that far away), all three major parties, including the two that form the government coalition (the third one being President Basescu’s – once a vocal supporter of the RMGC project himself – centre-right Democrat Liberal Party), suddenly turned against the mining project. Even the prime-minister, Victor Ponta, said that the MPs should vote against the project. But that proved to be only a failed strategic move to shut people up, for Ponta rapidly resumed his favourable position towards RMGC. A special parliamentary commission has been assigned to investigate the whole case, in what many think is just a ridiculous charade setting the ground for a positive vote for the mining project. The other day, this commission voted against the project, but on rather secondary grounds, overlooking its most important shortcomings, especially regarding the expropriation of locals and the irreversible damages caused to the environment and the cultural heritage. This seemingly auspicious decision leaves the door open for the RMGC project to get through in a slightly different form. Now everyone is waiting for the decisive vote in the Parliament, for which the Commission’s decision is supposed to serve as a guiding standard.

In the meantime, a month ago the American giant Chevron has suspended its plans to start fracking for shale gas at Pungesti, a village in Eastern Romania, following the protests of local farmers and their suppression by the notoriously aggressive gendarmerie. The people’s opposition to fracking – which has a nationwide scale – is determined not only by the predictable terrible effects to the environment, but also by the small royalties that Romania would receive as a result of this activity. Chevron was granted leases for over two million acres of land by the Romanian government in a deal signed in 2010 under similarly shady circumstances as in RMGC’s case. Now the street movement is trying to unify the struggle against RMGC with the one against Chevron, for both are blunt instances of the dire overarching complicity between state authorities and big corporate interests.

These struggles come in the context of a new awakening in Romanian society and especially among young and educated people, who are coming to terms with the failure of capitalist restoration to have its promised effect in improving the lives of the majority. Left-wing ideas are becoming less "taboo" and are an integral part of these protests, although the movement as a whole is still far from an openly socialist stance. There is a great deal of anti-corporate, if not anti-capitalist, feelings and attitudes – especially among the young – that those on the left can build on.

More generally speaking, what this incipient new Romanian Left has to do in the near future is to unite in a single national movement and to start attracting the working class into its movement, with the help of militant trade unions or otherwise. Only so can the left – in Romania and elsewhere – stand a chance in their fight against the dictatorship of big business and its political cronies.

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